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Call it what it is: ‘Fawning’ – and have the courage to intervene

Here, Dr. Robyne Hanley-Defoe discusses the fourth of the four stress responses – fawning – and talks about ways in which you can overcome this in the working environment both as a colleague and as a people manager.

‘I’m losing my mind!’ says an overworked and under-rested C-suite HR director to me on a recent international call. My initial thought is, “Wow! That would be nice to lose your mind.”

My mind won’t stop freaking out. Day and night, the constant mental chatter and energy drain of trying to support my teams as the world continues to be tremulous and precarious has taken a toll. My mind is sizzling and is omnipresent. I know I am not alone.

It’s not easy – but there’s a better way

I also know that our nervous system is ridiculously under-developed for the tasks at hand. We have essentially brought a fruit roll-up to a knife fight. The world needs us to be responsive, adaptive, nimble while also being compassionate, kind and productive.

While there will always be those who seem to be able to rise to the challenge of adversity and uncertain times, this is not the norm. Most people are reeling from years of micro and macro traumas, all while trying to hold the course of business as usual.

This is not business as usual. We are in a stress season that has lasted longer than anyone could have predicted yet we persist. Because that is what we do.

Stress is everywhere – including at work

Although stress permeates absolutely every part of our lives, we don’t get training on how to navigate stress effectively. Most people model how to ignore, avoid, or ward off stress. Society offers an infinite number of maladaptive ways of escaping stress to no avail. Just as telling an upset person to ‘calm down’, which has never in the history of the world worked, telling someone not to stress is equally ineffective.

Stress is inescapable because it originates inside of us. Trying not to stress is like endeavoring to run away from your own feet. There is an interplay between our reflexes and our reactions. Your body often will react before you are consciously aware of the threat. The faster you react, the safer you are.

Unfortunately, the threats aren’t just coming from one place. We are being peppered in every facet of our lives.

This is why so many people feel such a deep sense of urgency about everything when they are stressed. Stress tells us that everything needs max attention, immediately. It can’t wait.

The response is natural – but it’s not always helpful

Unfortunately, most of the things we are stressing about are not life and death, but our nervous system doesn’t know that.

‘Fight or Flight’ are commonly known stress reactions, but there are actually two others: freezing and fawning. Freezing is a stunned response. Instead of escaping or preparing to have a scuffle, you do nothing. You just stand or sit there. A common example: you watch Netflix so long, the ‘Are you still watching?’ prompt pops up, and despite having a report to write, the next episode starts, and you do nothing to stop it.

The fawning response is when someone is triggered, they acquiesce. Like a little, helpless fawn, when threatened, the person becomes soft, gentle, kind, or accommodating. They exhibit any behavior needed to ward off the enemy by showing that they are not a worthy opponent.

Fawning can take many forms. It could be staying stuck in toxic relationships, to taking on more work, to inviting relatives to a family gathering simply to keep the peace.

The fawning response unpacked

Psychotherapist and trauma expert Pete Walker, who authored Complex PTSD: From Surviving to Thriving, introduced the term and explained it is when people seek safety by appeasing the needs and wishes of others in a self-sacrificing way. It is often associated as a trauma response, but people can fawn without necessarily having experienced trauma.

It is important to note that this is an automatic. All stress reactions happen to us. We don’t get to pick which stress reaction to experience. If we could, that would be helpful. Your physiology, biology and the oldest parts of your brain take over. Your body and mind, without giving your higher-order thinking time to process, are making decisions on your behalf.

With fawning, the evolutionary part of your brain, the one that knows how to survive, reads the situation, and reacts by placating and appeasing. You placate because that is your best option for survival in that moment.

When you fawn, you’re giving yourself up

When you are fawning, you are erasing yourself. You push aside your own needs, feelings, and even thoughts. The reptilian part of your brain cannot even consider speaking up, setting boundaries, or being honest in that moment. It doesn’t have that capacity at all.

Also, even if the more advanced parts of your brain start to engage, you wouldn’t say anything anyway. That would be self-damaging. On some level you might be aware of your needs and feelings, but it is extremely scary to express them, so you become monotropic. You focus only on the other person.

Fawning in the work environment

This fawning response is running rampant in most organizations and companies, yet few are calling it what it is.

A colleague recently shared with me that they were leaving their job. They were having the HR meeting the next day. The exit plan was ready. We planned a call to debrief, unpack, or cry – whatever they needed. With deep frustration, not only did they not resign, they accepted a promotion! This strong, fierce, proud scholar – who studies this very area – fawned.

We cannot control the stress reaction we are going to experience but we can make decisions on how to respond to the reaction. Learning to work with your stress reactions takes insight, work, and a heck of a lot of practice. And still sometimes, nature wins. That’s okay. Your fawning response has kept you safe up to this point. Practice makes better.

What to do about fawning

Here are some researched informed practices that help with fawning and can also serve as critical insights for those working in HR to see the signs.

1. Create spaciousness

Make a rule for yourself not to respond to anything in the moment. Try saying, “I will look into that’, or “I will get back to you by EOD’. This allows enough time for you to shift from stress reaction to thoughtful consideration. You can even put a post-it note on your computer or your phone to remind you.

For leaders and managers: knowing your teams are weary is paramount. Build in this spaciousness. Try not to put people on the spot or add to artificial urgency of needing to know now.

2. Recognize the ’Disease to Please’ factor

Having someone upset or disappointed with you creates discomfort. Be compassionate with yourself and recognize how this behaviour creates a false sense of safety. Realistically, you cannot please everyone, and if you are trying to, you are already not meeting your own needs.

For leaders and managers: it is helpful to notice. Notice who you ask and why you continually ask the same people. To protect team morale, holding everyone accountable is a must. A person who is fawning is likely to take on more than their fair share of the workload.

3. Ensure what you do is aligned with your values

Knowing who you are and who you are not, is critical. Are you betraying yourself in making this decision? Know and hold your boundaries. Your boundaries are your life-enhancing systems, protect them.

For leaders and managers: be aware of who is establishing boundaries and who is not. Notice when emails are being sent. If you see work happen at all hours of the day or even when someone is on vacation, call it. Unfortunately, many people on the team benefit when a fawner doesn’t hold their own boundaries.

4. Embrace all of it

Feelings are fickle friends. We welcome the good things and go to extraordinary lengths to avoid the bad ones. Learning how to sit with all your emotions is a needed skill. And feelings do have a place in professional spaces.

The idea of siloing one’s emotions at work contributes to stress and overwhelm. Of course, we still hold ourselves accountable to being professional, yet we honour the whole person.

5. Be aware and practice your responses

Here is a simple tool that yields tremendous results. It is simply slowing down a wee bit to allow our consciousness to catch up.

  • See it: Notice the feeling or behaviour
  • Place it: Where is this likely coming from?
  • Name it: ‘I am fawning. I am trying to stay safe, but I can choose another way to respond’
  • Action it: Do something about it. Let it go. Move on. Try again.

Fawning has its place – but you can learn to manage it …

Fawning is an effective defense mechanism that has served many of us well in our lifetime. And it is totally reasonable to want to reclaim how we react in stressful situations moving forward. Knowing about fawning is an excellent start. Practicing self-compassion is needed.

Thankfully, despite it feeling like everything is coming at us all at once, the reality is we can only react to one thing at a time. If you don’t like how you are showing up, choose again.

… and to lead through it

Leading is not for the faint of heart in normal circumstances. Leading and supporting teams through the last few years requires enhanced strategies. I challenge you to have the courage to intervene when you see fawning behavior. Fawning leaves people feeling alone and disconnected.

Having your leader show up and help hold the line for you, when you need it most, is likely the most effective retention strategy available to us in this great talent resignation. Our top talent isn’t leaving because they have better offers, they are leaving because they no longer feel efficient and capable in their jobs. They are fawning or bowing out. That is the stress talking.

Remember you cannot outthink stress, but you can feel your way through it, especially when you have someone in your corner who gets it.

Be that leader who gets it. You will see first-hand the transformation of what is possible when we create awareness and respond through the lens of psychological safety.

Resilience expert, author, speaker, mom, and multi-award-winning education and psychology instructor Dr. Robyne Hanley-Defoe believes that now more than ever, the fawning response is causing burnout in women who we asked too much of even before the pandemic. In her book Calm Within The Storm: A Pathway to Everyday Resiliency, Dr. Robyne shares her kinder and more sustainable approach to taking on the challenges of life and developing authentic self-alignment and balance using resiliency.

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