Fight Or Flight?

Aug 20, 2013 1 Min Read

As you manoeuvre the corporate terrain, I am sure there are many instances when you have had your hot buttons pushed. Think of a time you felt unjustly critiqued or dealt a harsh reprimand which did not commensurate with your mistake. What did you do and how did you react? Did you brush it off, walk away or fight back? What makes you react the way you do?

Flight or Fight?

Our emotional response to perceived attacks or threats boils down to our “caveman” instincts which tell us to fly or fight – both of which do not serve us well in a complex modern urban jungle.

Uma, an experienced project manager, was summoned to the corner office of the finance head, Looi. She waited nervously, anticipating trouble for a substantial budget over-run. Five minutes into the discussion, Looi was obviously very upset and he started berating Uma.

“This has happened before and it is happening again; why can’t you get it right? An intern can do a better job!” He continued with a litany of examples how the PM (Project Management) office has fumbled before.

Not able to get a word in, Uma decided to shut up instead of defending her position. She figured she was not going to emerge a winner from this blame game. Looi is, after all, a high-ranking officer and one who wields significant influence over her performance review.

Ending his admonishment with “Not sure if anything I have said helped in solving the problem, but boy! Does it feel good!” At that, Uma hastily made her exit.

Although she managed to put a lid on a potentially explosive incident, she walked away from the altercation feeling shocked and disturbed. Uma was also worried that taking flight would be construed by Looi as an acknowledgement of her lapse in performance.


Corporate life has its fair share of emotional challenges, setbacks and adversity. To be successful, according to Richard St John, best-selling author of the book called 8 to be Great there are eight traits which successful people have in common. One of the traits John laid claim to is the ability to, well, persist! To do that, one must be adept at dealing with C.R.A.P., as follows:

C = Criticism

R = Rejection

A = Autocrats*

P = Pressure

*In Richard St John’s book, ‘A’ stands for something which is not appropriate for newspaper readership, hence I have replaced it with Autocrats.

In this article, let’s talk about Criticism (at the top of the C.R.A.P. list), in the context of office interactions. I unearth some tips to help readers deal with criticism better.

Finger pointing at large

Wilson, marketing extraordinaire and his team, were taking stock of the quarter’s performance after launching their latest product which was to steal a march on their competitor.

Alas, the quarter’s numbers were grim. Barbos, his boss, was making an impromptu visit to KL. From the grapevine, Barbos was on the warpath. Wilson was not surprised when Barbos unleashed a torrent of emotionally charged comments about how bad the advertising was and how slow sales have been. “I don’t like to point the finger but I think the advert clearly missed its mark. What have you got to say for yourself?” he said pointing his finger towards Wilson.

Retaliate or Respond?

Being put in the hot seat and blamed for something not entirely his fault naturally made Wilson angry and intuitively, wanted to retaliate. Controlling our responses takes a real effort of will.

With this in mind, Wilson decided to ignore the attack and calm down. Instead of thinking about how unfair it all sounded or how severe the criticisms were, he started to consider the situation from Barbos’ point of view. With a calm head, he started to form a structured line of questioning to address the outburst:

Wilson: Yes, I admit this is a serious situation. What do you think we ought to do?

Barbos: It’s your job to figure it out. I want to know what you are going to do about this situation.

Wilson: While the idea originated from me, management had signed off the advertisement. As a team, we’re capable of turning the situation around. Your direction and experience will be a great help now.

Barbos: I expect the product to start moving at the supermarkets as the ad campaign was targeted at that channel.

Wilson: Ok, is there anything else we can do to move the product faster?

Barbos: Mobilise the promoters – I want us to have 50% of our sales staff at the identified supermarkets.

Through a “calm-under-fire” approach, Wilson successfully manoeuvred a minefield and engaged his boss to provide ideas to improve the situation. To sum up what Wilson did:

Help Yourself

Let’s revisit Uma. She needs to get better at responding to Looi’s disparaging remarks. Her first step is to recognise that Looi’s behaviour is not within her power to change. She can, however, change how she views the situation.

Rather than belabouring the notion that managers, by virtue of their positions, should know how to speak to people in a respectful and engaging way, she suspends her high ideals and judgement.

Analyse the situation calmly

First she analyses the situation. What was Looi’s intention? Was Looi trying to help her or trying to belittle her? As she does not know, she is glad she didn’t say anything during the first meeting.

When we are “hijacked” by our emotional brain during times of intense pressure, our rational thought process and decision-making prowess are compromised.

When we cannot “think straight”, our reactions tend to be flawed. In hindsight, walking away from the explosive situation seems wise.

Clear the air

Secondly, Uma decides to clear the air with Looi. This takes courage and I assure you it is worth doing, especially when you know the criticism is unjustified.

Uma: When you criticised me about the mistakes I made, I felt put down. Was that what you meant to do?

Looi: (Surprised) No, it was not meant to put you down. I just wanted to highlight the mistakes your department has made in the past so you will not repeat them.

Uma: I was also very troubled by your comment about the incompetency of the PM’s office. Especially when you said “an intern can do the job better.”

Looi: I am very sorry my comment has upset you. I was upset and under a lot of pressure to deliver cost cutting measures.

Uma: Thank you for the clarification, Looi. I am open to receiving feedback and obviously concerned by your emotional approach. Going forward, I would like to have your commitment to address issues in a calm manner.

The following steps can help you respond to criticism in a constructive way where both parties can strive for a “win-win” outcome:

Final Thoughts

Criticism and workplace incivility are common like traffic jams in KL. It is something you can’t do much about. Similarly, it is also not within your control to change other people’s behaviour. But what is possible is your ability to respond to an emotional situation in a constructive way.

Whatever it is, your initial reaction is rarely your best. Do not make a bad situation worse even if your brain goes into overdrive and asks you to fight it. Often, this plays right into the offender’s hands.

Your habitual fast thinking may perceive criticism as attacks or threats; hence warrant a rejoinder to put the offender in his or her place. I encourage you to use the tips in this article to stay calm and better equip yourself to deal with criticism.

Remember, you have a choice – either give in to your “caveman” or respond in a constructive way where both parties win.

Anna Tan is a bean counter who found her calling in HR. Her journey in corporate HR has led her to pen STRETCHED! Unleashing your Team’s Potential by Coaching the Rubber Band Way, a book which likens human potential to be as flexible and agile as the rubber band. Click here for more articles.

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This article is published by the editors of with the consent of the guest author. 

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