What Do You Do When Someone Uses Power Over You?

fight flight submit coping mechanisms at workWhen coercive power is used on us to change our behavior, we immediately adopt one of these three possible responses: fight back, flee (psychologically or physically), or give in.

These responses are so necessary and automatic that they are called the “Coping Mechanisms.” Their essence has been neatly captured in the phrase, “Fight, Flight, or Submit.”

Here is a partial listing of the manifestations of the coping mechanisms as they often appear in the workplace. 

Fight.

Common forms of the fight response in the workplace include resistance, defiance, rebellion, aggressive arguing, “talking back,“ retaliation, getting even, sabotage, going over leader’s head (using someone else’s power), recruiting allies (ganging up), and (rarely) physical fighting.

  • “Passing it on” is a safer way to fight—some employees of authoritarian leaders submit to the leader, then take it out on their employees by bossing and bullying them.
  • “Ganging up” is a way to fight by accumulating power to use against dominators. In fact, using power on the weak tends to empower them to find ways to fight back. 
  • Anger, resentment, hostility, and negativism are the usual emotions seen in those whose coping style against the use of coercive power is to fight.

Flight

Flight is escaping from power, either physically or psychologically.

  • Flight by physical escape includes trying to avoid the leader in the hall, getting oneself transferred to another department, and quitting the job.
  • Flight by psychological escape includes excessive fantasizing and day-dreaming, the use of alcohol or other drugs, and some forms of mental illness.
  • Lying and hiding feelings are common ways to flee or escape criticism and punishment.
  • The ultimate flight or escape is suicide.
  • Fear is the dominant emotion behind flight.

Submit.

  1. To submit is to be obedient, compliant, to follow orders without question, to respect authority.
  2. 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.
  3. However, submission in conflict situations has the following damaging psychological impact on assertiveness, independence, and general ability to function fully:
  • Those who cope with power by submitting often tend to be passive, non-self-starting, and dependent.
  • Other traits associated with submission include blaming others, tattling, and cheating.
  • Many studies report the 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.
  • 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 resolving conflicts by non-power, no-lose methods.

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