Author and consultant The Fear-Free Organization
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Leadership: overcoming fear in the workplace

A fearful team is less innovative and less likely to perform well, but how can a culture of fear be changed once it's embedded in a company? 

14th Aug 2020
Author and consultant The Fear-Free Organization
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Fear is endemic in many organisations. Leaders use it to keep order or to drive their teams to higher levels of performance. Colleagues use it in winning the challenge of gaining the boss’ attention. Teams use it to increase their power base in organisations. Companies use it to intimidate the competition. In the post pandemic workplace, it’s arguably even more widespread, with job insecurity rife, and employees worrying about health issues or childcare, or the myriad other issues the Covid-19 situation has forced upon us. 

Recognising fear in the workplace is the first important step in doing something about it and starting to build a fear-free organisation.

Whilst in the short term triggering fear can be a very effective tool to get results, in the longer term it is very costly. Employees’ physical and mental wellbeing can be damaged, so they do not perform well, which impacts the company’s bottom line long term. Employers may have to spend a lot of time and money repairing the damage done to staff and to the company’s reputation.

Company cultures that run on fear encourage bullying behaviour that is detrimental to individuals as well as to teams. Holding leaders to account is impossible in an organisation where people are afraid to speak out, resulting in widespread poor decision-making.

Neuroscientific insights

Overcoming fear at work is possible by raising awareness of how the brain works and how damaging fear is, along with simple behavioural techniques for leaders and staff to use.  Fear is one of the eight emotions that recent research in neuroscience shows underpin all the ways that people think, act and feel.

Of the eight, fear is the most destructive emotion of all and is the one most easily triggered. That is because it is designed to keep humans safe from threats and dangers.

Over thousands of years, fear has helped humans to respond successfully to a wide range of hazards, usually short-lived (the wild animal in the jungle, the snake in the grass).

It is when the threats are continuous that problems arise: the brain focuses on working to resolve the threat, to the detriment of almost all other activity. If unable to settle the problem, anxiety and depression may result. When in fear, the body’s systems are kept on a high level of alert, which if unresolved, impairs the immune system and can lead to serious illness.

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Encouraging 'attachment'

It is much better to trigger what are known as the ‘attachment’ emotions of trust/love and excitement/joy when working with others. This enables the brain to stop looking out for threats and concentrate on the work in hand. Energy flows in the brain and body systems are at their most optimal; relationships are positive and work is productive. If the ‘surprise/delight’ emotion is also triggered, this enhances creativity.

Compliance can be taken as setting standards for the good of all, or instilling fear that is detrimental in the long run.

As with all training or awareness raising programmes however, it is important to identify and accept the need for it first, and that is a major challenge in an organisation where fear is everywhere.

Spotting the signs

Learning and organisational development experts can help leaders to identify when their organisations are full of fear and that key interventions need to be made. Recognising fear in the workplace is the first important step in doing something about it and starting to build a fear-free organisation.

In general, the most easily recognised symptom of fear in an organisation is a reluctance to speak up for fear of repercussions. Asking the question ‘what can’t you talk about around here?’ will give an indication of the communications culture and how fearful people feel. Typical behaviours in a fear-filled organisation include blame, making excuses, being cynical, and restricting the flow of information or participation in important decisions. Also common are the emphasis on processes, procedures, policies and rights, discrediting each other’s competence, a general lack of willingness to take accountability, and undermining each other’s efforts.

Individuals can report physical and emotional symptoms of fear. They may experience headaches, stomach aches, or problems sleeping. They find it hard to balance work with the other parts of their life. They say that they feel angry, intimidated, frustrated or sad because of their job, which may also be the cause of problems between them and their close family and friends. They may resort to drinking alcohol or using other addictive substances to cope. 

Other key clues about the organisation’s culture of fear are how leaders and staff behave, and how the systems and policies operate – especially HR ones. Compliance can be taken as setting standards for the good of all, or instilling fear that is detrimental in the long run. A fear-free organisation has a trust-based culture at its heart. Good quality relationships are the foundations for building trust between people.

Want to learn more about managing emotions at work? Read Why you need to nurture Emotional First Responders in the workplace.

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