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The Flight Response at Work: How to Overcome Procrastination and Avoidance Behavior

The Flight Response at Work: How to Overcome Procrastination and Avoidance Behavior

When was the last time you mentally or physically checked out? Maybe you were physically present in a meeting or conversation, but your brain was anything but present. Or maybe you left that meeting or conversation in the moment, coming up with some excuse . . . a more visible check out, if you will. These are very human (and very common) manifestations of the flight stress response. In particular, we’ve noted the presence of cell phones in collaborative spaces has made that mental check out so much more prevalent. Now, it’s just a tap away.

Let’s take a deep dive into flight as we continue our series on exploring the five stress responses (flight, fight, freeze, fawn, and flock), what they look like in the workplace, and how we can manage them to ultimately (and hopefully) create healthier connections and more positive outcomes.

The Flight Response in the Workplace

Flight response can look like actually leaving a situation–a conversation, a room, a meeting–or making a mental exit. Examples include faking a phone call or exaggerating the urgency of a situation as an excuse to leave. It can also look like remaining in the space but shutting off your ears because a topic is too hot to be a part of, doesn’t pertain to you, or you’re simply too overwhelmed.

A common flight response we see when working with teams is this: there is a leader who does not value the facilitation and, as a means of escaping, will dramatize a scenario in which they need to leave or miss sessions . . . particularly when the heat feels a little too high on the topic of discussion. This plays out in real time quite a bit. In fact, once after I’d outlined a training agenda, a very senior leader suddenly had to make an exit. Then, five minutes before the session ended, he returned (like clockwork) with an apology: “Sorry everyone, just had to get that under control.”

Please understand that I am not shaming this leader at all. Stress responses are universal and very human. They serve us as much as they hold us back, in different ways. I’ve made my share of flights, trust me. I share this example in particular because it’s so common that perhaps we can all see ourselves in it, a bit. While our circumstances are likely different, we can use this anecdote to help us point to time when our brain said, “Aaaaaannnnd . . . we’re done here.”

When we’re in a flight response, we’re focused on ourselves, our safety, and what’s in our best interest in the immediate. When our amygdala is triggered and we’re having big feelings, all our brains care about is now. Not the past. Not what’s next. Just that moment. This can obviously be very helpful in situations in which our lives are really in danger. When they’re not, though, it can lead to some impulsive decisions and missed opportunities, neither of which bode well for us in the long term.

Strategies for Moving Forward

There is nothing inherently wrong with feeling a flight response and needing a break. Issues can arise, however, when you check out without addressing the challenge at hand, which can create a loop of avoidance. In your absence–again, whether physical or mental–people might move forward with something without you, might stop an initiative because you’re not there to advocate for it, or might perceive your silence/absence as agreement when it’s actually not.

How, then, can we move forward productively? Not surprisingly–like much of our work–I recommend a strategy that centers around applying humanity and curiosity. When you start to feel a flight response coming on, try asking yourself a question to redirect it–and not a yes/no question. An open-ended one. This is important because it signals a different part of our brain that it’s time to tap in. The very ancient part of our brain–the back half where the amygdala lives–is in the driver’s seat when our flight response is triggered. Everything is binary: black/white, yes/no, leave/stay. When we ask different questions, a different portion of our brain–the part right behind our forehead, where our capacity for collaboration and problem solving and creativity lives–gets to come out and play.

How might this look in practice? Say I’m in a meeting and I feel myself shifting toward “Oh God, I just want to get out of here right now.” In that moment, I could ask myself:

  • “What’s the risk if I leave?”
  • “What are the odds that if I check out right now, I’m just going to have to have this conversation again?”
  • “What might be possible if I stay?”
  • “What are the chances that if I stay, I will feel good about sitting through the heat and working this out?”

What’s Next?

Remember, a big part of the reason we’re examining our stress responses is not to stop them from happening. That is impossible. Having these reactions is part of being human. They aren’t good nor bad; they just are. We often talk about two things being true at once, and this is one of those cases: just like we can’t stop our stress responses, we also don’t have to let them run the show. The more stamina we can build to help us hold steady in discomfort, the more we can address the elephants in our workplaces (and lives) productively.

How does a flight response usually show up for you? How have you handled it in the past, and what do you think you might try moving forward if you desire a different outcome? Tell me in the comments so we can all learn from one another, and stay tuned for the next article in this series where we’ll cover the freeze response.

Dr. Teresa Peterson
Director of Learning and Development | Website | + posts

Dr. Teresa Peterson is the Director of Learning and Development for Sarah Noll Wilson, Inc. In her daily work, she serves as Sarah’s key content collaborator. Teresa enjoys facilitating, researching, and is passionate about applying best practices for learning to make our experiences meaningful, engaging, and accessible for all types of learners. Teresa holds a Doctorate in Education from the University of Northern Iowa and brings over twenty years of experience teaching, facilitating, and leading to our team. Our clients love Teresa’s grounded energy, depth of thought, and ability to listen deeply.

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