Keeping the Amygdala in Mind at Work

The amygdala is the almond shaped cluster of cells at the base of your brain and is part of your limbic system. It is responsible for your stress response and because it is innate, you have very little control over it. Fear is a good thing. It has protected you, me, our ancestors from walking off cliffs, encounters with tarantulas or even saber tooth tigers. The amygdala is also the keeper of fear memories, a log book of those past dangers and close calls that were avoided. As with any operating system, no two people are alike. We each have our own modus operandi. Your amygdala is unique to you and has kept score differently than mine. I may have no problem speaking in front of an audience of 200 folks and you might be terrified. I might cringe and shut down at being the brunt of a joke on a Zoom call while you may love being the center of the hilarity.

There are four classic responses to fear or stress: Fight, Flight, Freeze or Fawn. As written by Sherry Gaba in Psychology Today, “Flight includes running or fleeing the situation, fight is to become aggressive, and freeze is to literally become incapable of moving or making a choice. The fawn response involves immediately moving to try to please a person to avoid any conflict.” Imagine all these in the workplace, even more so, think of these in a mostly WFH workplace during a pandemic. Perhaps our hands are tied but it is still showing up.

The Amygdala in the workplace:


So how does fight show up? A stressed-out coworker using the fight response might send long diatribes blaming every other department for missed deadlines, or veto a change to the plan without reason, or go behind their arch enemies back to shut down a program. The fight response may not be overt but behind closed doors. The fix? A private conversation. In this case, I think video is better to be able to read body language. For someone whose automatic response if fight, addressing it quickly is important. The fighter wants to be unchecked so they can do more damage. Hold them accountable, although I would try to do it privately, if possible. Remember that the fight response may be behind closed doors and might take some effort to uncover.


So how does flight show up? For someone working under stress or anxiety, they may ghost a meeting with a contentious coworker, not respond to requests for a deadline, and, perhaps worst of all, just quit. I have seen folks just quit “out of the blue” because they can’t seem to cope with the demands of work. Flight, for them, is their automated response. 

The fix? Try to talk to the coworker privately. I think speaking over the phone without video can feel safer, as in safer to express our true feelings (and fears). If you are managing someone in flight mode, give them some space and then help set up resources that will allay their fears. When we see no end in sight, the overwhelm can make us want to flee. See what resources are available to reduce their workload. This maybe not be possible and it may not work; sometimes, the only solution is to let them fly off.


So how does freeze show up? An anxious coworker will become inactive. They may be afraid of losing their job due to the recent company initiative, and not respond to emails and phone calls. It may feel difficult to move things forward due to a coworker’s inaction. They may never answer the poll, or the meeting request, or the IM. The fix? I think a private phone call maybe the best approach. Make sure they are alone and, if not, schedule the call for a private time. Privacy while WFH can be difficult to arrange. Once on the phone, probe for their fears or frustrations. Putting their saber tooth tigers in a cage can help them do better thinking. When someone is hijacked into freeze response, there won’t be effective thinking until the cage door is closed. Someone reacting with freeze response may take some time to uncover.


So how does fawn show up? The stressed coworker turns to pleaser mode. They preemptively agree so as not to upset or anger a coworker. You may notice that they quickly agree perhaps without reason. You may have thought they were opposed to working on the project on a Saturday, but they quickly prove you wrong and say, “Yes”. 

The fix? Well, the pleaser sometimes will take care of all the loose ends and be quick to move forward. You may think, why should I question it? Again, although it might seem counterproductive to talk to the fawner, talk to them by phone. When it is a private conversation and you ask if they have any misgivings with the plan, you are more likely to get an authentic, non-fawn, response. Having a bunch of pleaser responses may seem easier but their responses, especially long term, will alienate and burn them out.

Having stressed employees react from their amygdala is automatic and lacks cognitive reflection. Once someone has left their prefrontal cortex (where they do their best thinking) and landed in their amygdala, thinking has dropped. What is important is to adapt our response to their amygdala reaction. 

What do you think?

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