Fight , Flight or Improvise? A New Way to Approach the Wild Kingdom of the Workplace

LionA last minute cancelation by another speaker resulted in my first opportunity to come in contact with the Transportation industry at the recently held Transport Conference. Preparing my talk, I asked the conference chair about the attendees and the nature of their business challenges. He described a highly competitive and constantly changing environment where survival is usually the first item on the daily agenda. I’ve asked this question quite a few times and have learned that the safest bet I can make is that I will get this same answer whenever I ask about workplace challenges. It seems that whether it is public sector or private; large or small organizations, everyone is feeling pressure and stress. While we are a more complex version, we have the same reactions to stress as the animal kingdom.

Walter Bradford Cannon’s description of the fight-or-flight responsebird picture states that animals react to stress by readying themselves in times of attack to either fight or flee the scene quickly for survival. A critical difference is that in the animal kingdom, the threat of attack takes place and passes relatively quick allowing the blood pressure and adrenaline to return to normal. For us humans, getting back to normal isn’t so easy because the stress and perception of threat doesn’t subside. Consider these statistics on workplace stress from The American Institute of Stress:

  • 80% of workers feel stress on the job
  • Nearly half who feel stress need help to learn how to manage it
  • 75% of employees believe that workers have more job stress than a generation ago

In addition, 25% have felt like screaming or shouting because of job stress and 14% have felt like striking a co-worker in the past year. That’s a pretty strong example of fight response triggered by stress. Add in the fact that 60% of the major illnesses like stroke and heart attacks are triggered by stress and it’s easy to see the workplace desperately needs a new, different approach. I propose that it’s time to improvise.

The techniques of improvisation (improv for short) are based on creating agreement and fostering collaboration. While fight or flight responses imply a victor and a victim in the quest for finite resources, improvisation starts from nothing and losing doesn’t exist. Being open, positive and accepting what comes next is the first step to introducing improvisational behaviors into the workplace and organizational leaders are the ones that need to take the first steps.

Training managers and organizational leaders in improvisational skills will help them create healthier, collaborative work environments where employees can focus on doing their best work. Competition, technological change, pricing pressures or difficult customers won’t disappear, however building the skills to manage how we handle those challenges will help tame the stress beast. Improvisation skills come with a bonus – approaching work and life with a positive attitude and building on ideas has been known to produce a few laughs along the way which have surprising health benefits according to this article posted on .Picture of Room of People

Stress is a reality of life. It isn’t going away and it won’t be reduced. While our animal instincts push us to fight or flight, improvisation does provide us a different option, one with better sustainability for the long term.