Just an ordinary night in an extraordinary city, nothing at all drawing my attention to the approaching stranger.
"Excuse me sir.”
Looking up from my phone, expecting to be asked for spare change, there was barely the brush of a sleeve and then he was gone. Just like that—off and running and my phone with him: snatched out of my hand. Giving credit where credit is due, he was good.
Instinctively, I took off running after him. My wife, more reasonable than I at the moment, convinced me to "just let it go". Wise counsel, for with half my age and twice my stamina he deftly disappeared up an insanely steep San Francisco side street.
While it hardly touched the scale as far as trauma goes—barely registered a two out of ten—it was enough to trigger the "fight or flight" response.
And because of those mere few seconds, certain behaviors of mine would be automatically and forever altered: Now whenever I pull my phone out in public, I first look around and then grasp it tightly when anyone approaches.
The prudent thing to do of course.
It's an elegant system, fight or flight. Designed to keep us safe by storing details in memory just below conscious processing and only kicking in when key components of past experiences are re-enacted, no matter how subtly.
When the threatening pattern emerges again in the world, we automatically respond with heightened vigilance: scan the environment for possible threats, avoid showing vulnerability and react to potentially harmful interactions with flight, or with fight, or by freezing.
And the kicker is it is automatic so we seldom realize that we are reacting with stress responses. Or, more importantly in the workplace, when we are eliciting them in others.
The three basic stress responses—fight, flight or freeze—play out daily in workplaces. We call it "lack people skills", or maybe politics: it's all part of the normal rhythms of work, isn't it? And yet there is a staggering cost: estimates in the U.S. alone run as high as a half a billion dollars each year.
And that does not include the costs of loss of morale, good ideas being squashed, or the great solutions never expressed due to concern regarding "how it will land.”
Here's the thing: chronic exposure to off-color humor, being singled out, minimized, passed over, or ridiculed for being different elicits myriad stress reactions.
As do disruption of predictability, and violation of personal space or perceived norms. Lack of emotional and psychological safety makes people unwilling to step up, pitch in, or engage in meaningful ways. And there are subtler, more pernicious behaviors too.
The first of 3 f 's, the fight response is most dramatic.
It activates us to take action to protect ourselves, to respond to the demands of the moment. Channeled effectively, this activation can ultimately be productive.
The discomfort of having to interact with a manager or customer angry at a missed deadline might motivate us to eliminate the possibility of a recurrence. Communication technique gets some focus and improvement.
Now deadlines are met, and clearer agreements are put in place.
Yet, far more often, the fight response is brutally unproductive. Though there was no physical danger to me when my phone was snatched, on a primitive level the structures in my brain governing emotions sprang into action, triggering a full-on fight response.
Off I set to right a wrong and to protect my well-being. And behaving this way actually increases rather than reduces potential danger.
It's no different when we argue with a boss, co-worker or others because we feel unheard, disrespected, or simply pissed-off. Arguing, rationally speaking, is among the least effective strategies to achieve our goals.
Nonetheless, it is one of the ways the fight response operates in the workplace, along with bullying, arguing, and fighting back.
Among the more subtle manifestations in the fight genre are gossiping and spreading malicious rumors, deliberately making mistakes, acting out in a contrary manner, yelling, throwing things and belittling others.
And it doesn't stop there: as many as 2% of workers surveyed report having hit a coworker at least once.
Workplaces abound with tales of supervisors under high levels of stress sharing their awful bounty by yelling at the people they manage, people who are on their own side.
When such acting out is inconsistent with values and personality, or the stakes for doing so too high, people fight back by engaging in other passiveaggressive, even less productive behaviors. They might fight by deliberately sabotaging efforts to meet certain goals and objectives.
They might fight by speaking poorly of the company when it is interviewing new potential employees. They might fight by complaining to family and friends, some of whom might be customers or coworkers.
What about the people who don't fight back, who don't defend themselves when they feel the environment is not supportive of their talents and contributions?
In the natural world, flight is a respectable means of escaping predators or any potential harm. Even with few predators, humans still flee for a variety of reasons, as did the person who stole my phone.
The reason may seem obvious, he committed a crime and didn't want to get caught. But he was also fleeing accountability, and fleeing the possibility of having to surrender some hard-won gain (my phone) that required initiative, however contrary to social norms.
In business, people flee for similar reasons. Avoiding conflict, accountability, the possibility of giving up stature or something they feel they earned— all activate stress responses.
The manner in which flight shows up in the workplace is expressed through a variety of actions. Some literally flee: they quit, join other companies, or start their own businesses. Exit interviews and studies repeatedly show at least 20% to 30% of people who leave the workplace do so because they feel it is not a healthy place to be.
Others flee through absenteeism: by staying home ill, needing to recover from stress and avoiding having to interact with co-workers. Others may flee by avoidance techniques: arriving late, leaving early, missing meetings, taking long lunch hours, conversing with family and friends on their phones. All this means falling behind on work duties, but anything to avoid the discomfort of interacting with others.
They also flee by not fully participating. Global studies show that only one of three employees report being fully engaged at work. All of this translates into HR costs for counseling, costs of retraining people, loss of productivity, and decreasing morale.
Finally, the most insidious response of all and perhaps the costliest, freezing.
In nature, animals are programmed to freeze when they can neither successfully fight nor outrun more powerful creatures. Keeping still, hoping not to be seen or antagonize. It is essentially giving up.
This form of avoidance is endemic throughout organizations. Playing it safe, flying below the radar. Do just enough work to meet the job requirement, but don't put yourself in a position where you are noticed.
Don't respond to e-mails, slow to reply to phone calls.
My experience with the military suggests that the structure there is such that people are inadvertently punished for taking risks if their outcomes are not successful.
During my work there, I repeatedly listened to soldiers and officers talk about not taking initiative as a way to extend their careers.
Similar dynamics were evident in other places in which I've worked. Talented people just putting in their time, shrugging off unproductive comments of supervisors, hanging on only a few more years until retirement.
Simultaneously they shrugged off any efforts to improve efficiency, or sign on to change initiatives.
Impossible to measure is the cost to organizations of all of the missed opportunities when people don't point out potential safety violations, don't offer innovative solutions, don't come up with insights and suggestions which might make everything run more smoothly.
The reason for withholding? Fear. Fear of making a mistake. Fear of being met with derision for proposing such an idea. Fear that someone else will take credit for their ideas, leaving them with more work and less recognition.
When people don't instinctively feel safe, whether it is physically, psychologically, or emotionally, they make use of stress behaviors.
Cultivating a culture of trust and creating psychological and emotional safety liberates energy that otherwise goes into guarding and protecting.
The costs of the three f 's can be mitigated. Responsive leaders know this. Responsive organizations practice this. The ROI of investing time and resources in creating emotionally healthier workplaces is both immediate and measurable.