Updated: Dec 6, 2022
We’ve all heard of fight/flight/freeze when in danger, but have you heard of fawn and flop? Better known in the psychology than leadership world, these are two more recently coined nervous system responses that capture more nuanced ways we cope and stay safe in the face of danger. Understanding fawn and flop matters to leaders because each form of nervous system disregulation provides insight about the possible inhibitors of optimal performance, creativity, and engagement.
Fawning is helpfulness and compliance to avoid abuse. You disregard or drastically deprioritize your own happiness and well-being despite being poorly treated. It’s also a way to avoid the conflict that may emerge from sticking up for yourself or challenging the status quo. Flop is becoming unresponsive; an extreme form is fainting. It’s a form of becoming paralyzed by fear, or overwhelmed by stress, so much so that there is checking out or a collapse. It’s similar to freezing, except the muscles become loose and your body goes floppy.
While these are trauma responses, there are subtler forms that show up in all relationships and contexts, including professional ones. Fawn shows up at work as people pleasing; prematurely diffusing tense situations instead of being present; avoiding difficult conversations. And while we don’t tend to faint at work, some forms of quiet quitting or “phoning it in”are expressions of flop.
Let’s look at flopping at work a little closer. While quiet quitting may actually be about putting up healthy boundaries, it can also have to do with a paralysis and indecision of where to work next. The nervous system isn’t ready to flee, isn’t invested or motivated enough to fight, and likely moves or slightly re-engages when prodded or given the work-place equivalent of smelling salts: incentives, motivational or stay interviews. There may be fear of leaving a comfortable situation and the safety it provides—especially when the next step isn’t clear; a disinterest in “stepping up” to new challenges; mild to moderate disengagement that dampens any “discretionary effort”—or the effort that an employee can but does not have to give.
Recognizing when employees are fawning and flopping provides insight and a psychological edge with how best to proceed. If you realize that fawn or flop are at play, here are some strategies to address it:
Share feedback that you’ve noticed behaviors that signal people-pleasing and avoidance, and that they may inhibit their professional growth.
Provide opportunities to upskill in direct communication and conflict resolution
Encourage them to connect to and prioritize their needs, interests, and well-being
Resource them with a coach to address people pleasing behaviors that keep them from being more effective and advancing in their careers
Aim for transparency and clear communication, without over-dedicating time or taking excessive responsibility for motivating them
Provide feedback that you’ve observed behaviors that signal disengagement, and ask coaching questions that support them with accessing clarity:
What is the most exciting part of your job?
What aspect of your job do you wish you could change?
What factors contribute to you doing your best work?
What would make it more appealing to stay here, besides a promotion/raise?
As a leader, being aware of fawn and flop will help you proactively address the behaviors that are limiting an employee’s engagement or professional excellence.