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  • Eve Coker, PhD, LCMHC

When you cause your employees to fight or flee!

Updated: Mar 3

I heard a story recently of a manager who struggled with his employees following orders. They would often perform tasks in unsafe ways and then argue with him when he corrected them. In many businesses, especially his, following protocols is incredibly important because they promote SAFETY. So why would someone want to do something foolish enough to risk their safety?


Some might say that the most obvious answer might be that the workers just want to do something quickly. Poor leadership would describe them as "lazy." Maybe they just don't care. So, we have to ask: Why don't they care?


When the organization doesn't cause employees to feel valued, employees won't value their organization. That means they won't put the work and focus into the company that they are expected to. They won't believe or care about safety warnings - they may even feel so burnt-out from the stress of working in a toxic culture that they want to rush through their day just to get away.


In fact, when a manager confronts this type of stressed-out, undervalued-feeling worker, that employee's fight-or-flight response (also called fight-flight-freeze) is going to get triggered. Basically, when we are stressed out, our brain's survival mechanism causes us to fight, flight, or freeze. In a job situation, it's very likely that the employee is either going to argue back or quit.

It'll be even worse if that employee experienced hardships as a child - that means that the person's brain may be even more sensitive to a fight-or-flight response.


So in this scenario that I heard about, a manager confronted a worker about the worker's terrible disregard for safety by yelling at the worker about how he wasn't following protocols. While this manager was right about the importance of protocols, the way that he approached this stressed worker caused a fight-or-flight response: The worker became irrational and began arguing back to the manager and disregarding the manager's role as a leader. Of course, this was disrespectful and unprofessional on the worker's part. However, we can also understand why the employee lashed back at his leadership - and by understanding it, we can figure out how to stop it.


Empathize for a moment: We've all been stressed to the point that we care less about doing something than we should care. Many of us who've had the misfortune of being in a toxic workplace know what it's like to feel like a cog in the wheel, where we're treated like less than human and completely dispensable. It's a real blow to feeling like a valid human being.

So, pretend you're a stressed out person in a place that makes you feel uncomfortable and used, so you just don't care about what you're doing... and then someone comes along and starts yelling at you because you just CAN'T care. Your brain is so stressed from your environment that you can't do the things you need to do.


And someone is yelling at you not because they're worried about your safety, but because you can't magically make yourself be okay with doing everything they want while being treated without dignity or respect.


So, in this story, the manager threatens to go to another manager who can enact punitive measures on the arguing employee. The arguing employee snaps to his senses and realizes that he reacted poorly.

Many might argue that enacting punishment for this kind of behavior stops it. Maybe it will stop the behavior for the moment, but it doesn't stop it long-term. It also doesn't stop it for the entire organization. In fact, trying to use punishment to "keep them in line" just keeps that toxic culture going - and the toxic culture is what keeps employees from performing well and following leadership effectively.

Using punishment is like taking a Tylenol for cancer. It might help you feel relief momentarily, but the problem is still there and the whole body is at risk for worsening.


So how do we fix the toxic culture? It takes communication with both leadership and followers. It takes training and a new mindset to understand people and help them grow, rather than grind them into whatever is expected of them.


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