Survival instincts in the office

Dispute Resolution and the Brain: fight, flight, freeze and fawn

Written by Jess McPherson

Every office has politics and personalities will clash from time to time.  What might surprise you is how our reactions and actions in those moments of conflict are driven by the brain. The four survival instincts to external stress, such as conflict, are fight, flight, freeze and fawn. Fight is to respond aggressively, flight is running away, freeze is to stop, and fawn is to ‘people please’ to remove the threat.  

Childhood experiences and trauma impact adult behaviour and there is limited ability to shape someone else’s behaviour past childhood. Therefore, a better understanding of why someone might act in an outwardly disproportionate or confusing way can help to leaders sympathise, deescalate the situation, and adapt leadership styles when necessary.


Year end reviews

At this time of the year, many organisations are undertaking end of year reviews with their team. Managers may be having conversations around performance, areas for development, and setting objectives for the year to come.

While these sorts of conversations may come naturally for some, others can find this challenging. In a situation where you are giving negative feedback to a coworker, and the coworker disagrees with the feedback, the fours Fs may come into play. This might trigger the following responses:

Fight – argue with the feedback giver

Flight – display passive aggressive behaviours in retaliation

Freeze – shut down and stop being able to work effectively

Fawn – ‘sucks up’ to the person giving negative feedback, to prevent it happening again.

How can you respond in this situation? Overall, choosing a suitable time and location and making the discussion constructive, can reduce the chance of a strong negative response. However, there are ways you can respond to the survival instincts and better manage the situation.

Fight – Keep calm and level in response to an emotional outburst and the person should start to mirror this behaviour and calm down. If the situation does not deescalate – suggest a break and return to the issue later.  

Flight – politely and directly address the passive aggressive/avoidant behaviour and ask the person if something said or done has upset them, and how they can support them.

Freeze –time the feedback to a quiet time of the day – so the person has time to process the information and important work is not impacted if they stop being able to work properly.

Fawn – if someone shows a need for validation in response to criticism, give them positive feedback when they perform well, while making sure to keep good personal boundaries.



People who struggle to respond appropriately to feedback may benefit from techniques to help manage their reaction to conflict. These techniques help engage the parasympathetic nervous system and relax the person enough to respond rationally to the situation.   

Some popular stress management responses include:

Relaxation response:

Short term: deep breathing down to the stomach and visitation of calming words and scenes

Long term: yoga, tai chi and meditation

Physical Activity:

Short term: walking during breaks & moving around during the day

Long term: encourage a good work/life balance involving exercise

Social support:

Supporting an open and supportive work environment and a balanced lifestyle.


It is important for leaders to understand the four F responses. In these stressful situations, the parts of the brain triggered by conflict cannot understand in the moment that these survival mechanisms are not useful for day to day working life. Therefore, an important part of dispute resolution and managing conflict is to understand what may cause these responses and how to respond to them.