Stressed employees Making or breaking company strategy

Stressed employees Making or breaking company strategy

The Ripple Effect of Employee Confidence: Navigating Upheaval in the Workplace

Mergers in the workplace

During times of upheaval, whether due to a merger or other disruptions, the impact on employees goes beyond the initial shock. According to Peter Atwater, a financial researcher and consultant, employee confidence is a determining factor in the success or failure of a company following a disruption. In his book, “The Confidence Map: Charting a Path from Chaos to Clarity,” Atwater explores how employee behavior during uncertain times can have profound consequences. It is essential for CEOs to anticipate and manage employees’ responses, as these reactions can shape the future of the company.

Atwater identifies five stress responses that influence how employees process doubts and fears: fight, flight, follow, freeze, and “f*** it.” While the first two are well-known, the other three are less discussed but just as common. Instead of assuming employees will blindly follow the leadership’s direction, it is crucial for leaders to understand these responses and their potential impact on the organization.

Understanding the Five Responses

Fight: When faced with internal changes like mergers, employees may exhibit a “fight” response by actively engaging in the process. This can involve asking tough questions during town hall meetings or advocating for certain policies or perks. Although this response may be seen as negative, it indicates engagement and a desire to protect the company’s interests.

Flight: On the other hand, the “flight” response is characterized by disengagement and a desire for safety. Employees may choose to leave the company during a crisis, seeking better opportunities elsewhere. In some cases, flight may follow an initial attempt to fight, indicating a loss of confidence in the company’s future.

Follow: When unsure about what to do, employees often look for someone to follow. While CEOs may hope to be that trusted authority, it is unrealistic to expect them to personally reassure every employee. Instead, employees typically turn to their immediate supervisors or influential peers within the organization. Good relationships with these unofficial leaders can significantly influence how messages are received and disseminated throughout the workforce.

Freeze: The “freeze” response manifests as fear-induced paralysis, leading to decreased productivity and an inability to adapt. Employees may feel overwhelmed and uncertain about how to navigate a new challenge or change. Instead of embracing necessary transformations, they cling to familiar routines, putting the company at risk.

F* it:** Perhaps the most dangerous response, the “f*** it” attitude involves actively undermining the company while under stress. This can include leaking confidential information, badmouthing the company publicly, intentionally underperforming, or sabotaging team efforts. Leaders who adopt a “f*** it” mindset pose the greatest risk, as their influence can poison the corporate environment.

Acting Fast and Communicating Clearly

Today, various factors such as the rise of AI or return-to-office mandates contribute to employee anxiety. To prevent negative responses and support a smooth transition, companies need to communicate with speed and clarity. Leader’s acknowledgments of stress caused by company actions and their plans to address employee concerns can help restore confidence.

Issuing in-office mandates, for example, may lead employees to question their loyalty and consider quitting or sabotaging the workplace. Quick and clear communication is vital, providing a sense of certainty and reducing uncertainty. The sooner employees feel reassured, the faster the healing process can begin.

Moreover, it is crucial for leaders to realize that a single message is insufficient during trying times. CEOs and the C-suite must avoid prematurely shifting their focus solely to integration or restructuring, leaving employees to draw their conclusions. Neglecting employee concerns risks creating a breeding ground for trouble.


Managing employee confidence during times of upheaval is critical for a company’s success. Understanding the various stress responses employees may exhibit—fight, flight, follow, freeze, and “f*** it”— allows leaders to predict and address potential challenges. By communicating promptly, acknowledging employee stress, and providing clarity, leaders can navigate through uncertainty and set their organizations on the path to a brighter future.