DIY Thinking 1.4: Physical Response to Criticism

A physical and emotional response

Hopefully, the reason one criticises someone in the workplace is usually to make that person aware of their behavioural failure in a specific context and help them improve. Unfortunately, criticism makes the recipient defensive and closed to any intended message. This is worse when you appear to be attacking the person rather than highlighting the consequences of their behaviour. 

Worst-case scenario. Mpho: “John, your report is poor. It is not the standard of work the company prides itself on. Revise it and let me have an acceptable version by tonight”.  John looks at Mpho, his boss. He only partly hears what she says. The rest of him is reacting. He thinks of all the reasons her criticism is unfair. (Sipho didn’t let him have the data he needed.) What the consequence of her criticism may be. (Lose my job.)  Most primitively, he wants to either defend himself (physically or verbally) or run away from the awful situation. All of this is normal.

What do you think are the factors that drive John’s reaction? 


  • how severe the criticism
  • whether he thinks it’s fair
  • how much the person being critical matters in John’s life
  • the relationship between John and his criticiser
  • what is at stake
  • the way the criticism was phrased.


If Mpho wanted John to give of his best, she should have had a different conversation.This is what Mpho said: 

“John, your report is poor. It is not the standard of work on which the company prides itself. Revise it and let me have an acceptable version by tonight”.

Phrase Mpho’s comments differently so that it is less of an attack on John and more about guiding John.


  • get John’s opinion on what is wrong with the work
  • be ready with examples of what and is wrong and why you feel that way
  • get John’s input on changes needed
  • get John’s commitment regarding steps he will take to improve the report.

When we are attacked, whether verbally or physically a primitive part of our brain stimulates the brain to either stay and fight for what is ‘right’, or to run away. Neither are an option in the workplace. In the workplace we often are forced to adopt a third option ‘freeze and face it’. The very reaction that causes the fight-or-flight-or-freeze reaction also prevents our binary brain from being receptive to new ideas and creative. 

Note that research shows that a woman’s response may include other elements when faced with attack. However, when you are being ‘attacked’ by your boss or colleague mentally you fight-or-flight even if physically the work environment forces you to freeze.