No Way Out: How People Deal With Threats

“Do it, or else!” Even when the “or else” is vague or not well understood, such a statement, explicit or implied, can cause significant stress. This is especially true when the command comes from someone with a lot of power. If we have little power, we tend to respond in very predictable ways. For decades, psychologists have described the automatic ways that human beings respond to stress with the phrases, fight, flight, or submit. There are many ways to fight, run, or give in. We will discuss a few of those mechanisms as they often appear in the workplace.

Sometimes we choose to fight. Animals bear their teeth, growl, adopt aggressive postures and the like. Humans are not that much different. People respond with resistance, defiance, rebellion, aggressive arguing, talking back, retaliation, getting even, sabotage, going over the leader’s head (using someone else’s power), recruiting allies (ganging up), and even physical fighting. Sometimes they will pass it on, a safer way to fight, by taking it out on their employees by bossing them or bullying them. Ganging up is a way of marshalling power to use at a later time for retaliation. A host of emotions include: anger, resentment, hostility, and negativism. Another “fight” response is malicious obedience. In other words, I will do exactly as told even though I know it is completely wrong. This is another “safe” way of fighting back because I can always say, “Gee, I was just doing what you told me to do.”

Another coping mechanism is flight. I can run away, either literally or figuratively. Again, animals hide, or run depending on their size, skills, and genetic make up. People often flee physically by avoiding the leader, getting transferred, quitting and so on. Psychologically, they run by fantasizing, day-dreaming, alcohol, drugs, or depression. Such strategies often include lying and hiding feelings especially when the threat includes strong criticism or punishment. In some cases, people see suicide as the only way out. “Sadly, in 2008, workplace suicides jumped 28% to 251 incidences, the highest level since the government began tracking them, according to the Department of Labor. Suicides in the workplace in 2008 were at their highest level since the government started tracking the numbers. [1]” Certainly, the economy explains some of this but the behavior of the leader cannot be discounted. Fear is the dominant emotion behind flight, especially suicide.

fight or flight violence at work fighting conflict resolution leadershipThe third strategy is to submit. To submit is to be obedient, compliant, to follow orders without question, to respect authority. Domesticated animals are obedient. They perform in circuses, fetch our slippers, and do tricks for our friends. Note that being obedient, respecting authority, and following orders, even when those orders conflict with important needs, is behavior that is highly valued by many. Some trained animals provide valuable services: guard our possessions, help the blind cross streets, herd sheep and so on. However, submission, especially in conflict situations, has many damaging psychological impacts on team members. By submitting, team members often become passive, non-self-starting, and overly dependent. They are more likely to blame others for problems. They tattle and cheat. There is also costly emotional damage suffered by entire groups whose members have traditionally been kept in a state of submissive oppression – women, children, and racial and ethnic minorities, among others. In extreme cases, submitting to power and authority can produce a socially devastating kind of “good,” loyal, often fanatic citizen, as exemplified in Nazi Germany or in the blind obedience that led to the mass suicides in Jonestown, Guyana.

Even though most of us would deny that we would respond is such a way, many of the most famous psychological experiments showed that people often do bizarre things when ordered to do so by someone in authority. None of us is immune. In one such study[2] , subjects were told to administer electrical shocks to another subject (actually a confederate) when he or she gave an incorrect response to a question. Each incorrect response led to an increase in the level of shock. Eventually, the confederate began to complain, then scream, demand to be let out of the study, and finally he or she stopped responding at all (the subjects administering the shocks could not actually see the confederate, only hear him or her). The experimenter calmly ordered the subject to continue administering the shocks. Disturbingly, most of the subjects kept right on going despite what they heard from the confederate. Many of the participants in the study expressed deep regret about their behavior and felt remorse years later.

These responses tend to be automatic and often performed at a very low level of awareness. The effects of power, the use by the other person of one or more of the three coping mechanisms, are absolutely predictable and, in fact, unavoidable. Viewed in this light, they are a powerful argument for avoiding the use of power as a way of resolving conflicts. Power is a poor substitute for leadership.

[1] Butler, Kelley. Employee Benefit News, June 2, 2010.
[2] Milgram, Stanley. Obedience to Authority; An Experimental View, Harper and Row, New York, 1974.
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