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What the brain’s response to stress and threat can teach us about high conflict in the workplace.
What the brain’s response to stress and threat can teach us about high conflict in the workplace.

"Why are people behaving so badly!? I don't understand what is wrong with everyone!"

Sound familiar? You are not alone in wondering what is happening with people's behaviour lately and why high conflict situations are on the rise. 

Outbursts in the workplace are becoming more common and the culprit is chronic stress.

As a leader, when you try to enforce a policy with a team member, you might witness a short temper or unfiltered reaction. 

The team member starts swearing, yelling, and threatening you. 

Then you may wonder aloud, “Why are you overreacting and being so inappropriate?”

But our immediate reactions or questions aren’t always the most effective. 

How can you approach team members with empathy? 

How can you structure your conversations to increase alignment?

To develop effective strategies for navigating high conflict situations, it is helpful to first understand the science behind chronic stress.

When exposed to repeated or chronic stress, wear and tear on the brain and body is inevitable. Over time, the cumulative effects of stress can lead to various physical and mental health issues. The biological impact of chronic stress is known as 'allostatic load'.

With the ongoing stressors of the pandemic, including social isolation and financial stress, the allostatic load increases and can result in people being much more reactive than they would be if they were less stressed. 

We like to think that we are rational human beings, but the truth is that our brains are designed to ensure our survival. When we encounter a situation that we perceive to be threatening, we can easily slip into more reactive, less conscious ways of responding. 

As Evian Gordon puts it, "minimizing danger and maximizing reward is an overarching organizing principle of the brain." 

The three stages of threat response. Triggered mindset, reactive mindset and creative mindset.

When we feel threatened, our brains initiate automatic responses that can lead to high conflict if we don’t exercise conscious control over them.  For clarity, we can think of them as three distinct states:

1. Triggered

At the highest threat level, there is a strong emotional threat response. The person may be very disturbed or distressed and might lose control of their emotions.

2. Reactive

The person may be distressed or disturbed by the perceived threat, but will still be able to discuss, listen, or reflect while modulating their emotional response.

3. Creative

The person can control their emotional response to a threat and is open to thinking more flexibly, taking perspectives, and engaging in collaborative problem-solving*.

*Note: As a leader, we want to remain creative as much as possible because this is where innovative thinking happens.

Trying to make sense of the onslaught of difficult behaviour in the workplace is a common concern these days, but there are reasons why people become so volatile, and there ARE strategies to help you deal with it in a calm, confident and effective way.

To learn more about strategies to understand and deal with bad behaviour and high conflict situations, download our FREE Guide to Understanding and Dealing with High Conflict Situations.


Rethinking Stress: an adaptive mindset exercise for teams

download our free worksheet
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