The rise of a new ‘Fight or Flight’

The death of ‘fight or flight’ at work doesn’t mean the death of fighting for what matters

In 1915, American physiologist Walter Bradford Cannon described the fight or flight response in animals as ‘a series of bodily changes,‘ including an increased heart rate, respiration, and flow of oxygen and energy to the muscles. These bodily changes were supposed to help increase the chance of survival, by readying the body for either fighting or running. They were physical responses to life-threatening situations.

So, here’s a question: in what kind of working environment should a white-collar marketing professional be anywhere close to activating the fight or flight mechanism?

To be fair, we’ve all had those meetings, where the cortisol is skyrocketing and the heart rate spikes. But really, in a grown up world, these flight or fight responses should have been discarded long ago.

The marketing industry has perhaps got less of an excuse than any other for this kind of stress-centred survivalist mentality. Not least because the whole point of marketing is to understand people, and convey things in a way that works best for them.

Whether it’s to an audience of 100,000, or five people in a boardroom, marketing professionals have to be able to put themselves in other people’s shoes, understand what’s going to be important to them, and reach them accordingly. I’d argue, then, that relying on triggering a primal survival instinct to manage your staff might be an indicator that you’re note the strongest communicator after all. should feel that their decisions, their values, or their job are under threat.

There are two ways to frame ‘fight or flight’ in the business world — the type of fight or flight that Cannon studied at the turn of the century, and another, slightly more evolved, version. 

The pandemic led a hell of a lot of people to reassess their priorities, and in a lot of cases, the ‘fight-or-flighty’ businesses came up short. People moved jobs in lockdown. Many left in-house and agency teams, going freelance or otherwise working for themselves. In turn, we’ve seen a talent shortage. Now, in a candidate-driven market, those that enforced a fight or flight culture are learning what happens when ‘flight’ becomes a real option.

The new ‘flight’ isn’t preparing your body to run at top speed away from a predator — it’s quiet quitting. It’s calmly handing in your notice and turning away. The new ‘fight’ carries the same energy, from what I’ve seen. It’s no longer a screaming match in the boardroom — it’s less panicked, more self-assured.

Employees are longer afraid to call out toxic behaviour. They simply won’t tolerate unfair pressure, and they’ll actually go out and talk about their mental health. There is a growing realisation that no one should ever be in a situation where their fight or flight response is triggered by their job. The world is getting much better at picking the right battles, and going into fight for the things that people believe in and care about.

This goes to the heart of the matter. There are still some things that are worth fighting for. And a more evolved version of a fight or flight response means fighting for what really matters. In a world where life is tough enough, no one wants their working environment to trigger a response like Cannon’s 1915 fight or flight. But that doesn’t mean not fighting.

There’s a lot more to a great fighter than just having the best oxygen flow. So too, the death of ‘fight or flight’ at work doesn’t mean the death of fighting for what matters — it just means a more evolved approach.

Featured image: The Jopwell Collection / Unsplash

Charlotte Boerescu-Kelly, Head of Marketing, The GO! Network

Charlotte is Head of Marketing at The GO! Network, a Manchester-based intermediary for marketing leaders that connects in-house teams to outstanding agencies through a bespoke search and selections process

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