Fear and Awareness in the Workplace

By Kim Lowe, Simple Intentions Managing Editor

fearGossip, bullying, coercion, passivity, oppressive competition. You might think this describes a middle school lunchroom, but too often it also portrays today’s workplace.

One of my worst experiences in corporate life was working in an environment so shrouded in fear – of massive strategic changes and ultimately layoffs – that eventually the uncertainty and distrust drove many of the behaviors listed above. Rather than working creatively and collaboratively toward shared goals, my colleagues and I worked solely to protect our own futures.

We can argue that displacing fear in the workplace must start at the top, that it’s the job of company executives to create a unifying strategy, model trustful collaboration and promote a healthy working environment.

But easing fear and the distrust it creates must also take place at the individual level, with each of us not only gaining an awareness of our fears, but more importantly seeing how they show up in our behaviors and understanding their impact to our teams.

Common fears we see in today’s workplace include:

  • Fear of being invisible
  • Fear of making a mistake
  • Fear of retribution
  • Fear that others will discover and expose our weaknesses
  • Fear we’re not delivering enough / creative enough / good enough

Just as our innate response to stress is fight or flight, in response to fear we often over-react or withdraw. If we fear being invisible, we may over-communicate. If we fear our weaknesses being exposed, we may withdraw.

Gaining awareness of our fears and their impact can be a first step toward creating a less fearful, more productive work environment. Take pause, and ask the essential question: What am I afraid of? From here, we can begin to see the behaviors that manifest as fear. An honest understanding of our behaviors reveals their impact and ultimate results.

Visibility, for example, is an important quality not only within a team, but also among upper management. Highly visible people are often better recognized for their contributions and more readily considered for new projects as well as promotions.

If our quest for visibility is driven by fear, however, it often looks like frenzied over-reaction. Our behaviors might include over-communication (five scattered emails followed by multiple IMs rather than one thoughtful email), over-delivery (presenting 20 data points when 10 wholly satisfies the argument) and micromanagement (impatient oversight and just doing work that could or should be delegated).

As with any behavior that promotes a fearful environment, the impact is as negative on oneself as it is on the team. Distrust displaces collaboration and team building. Learning and growing is inhibited. Team members shift their focus from championing the team, product or company to protecting themselves.

Knowing what we fear and recognizing fear-driven behaviors, whether it’s aggressive communication or saying no to opportunity, opens the door to drive fear out of the workplace. When we recognize our frenzied communication and the impact it has on others, we can resolve to communicate more meaningfully, with greater focus on what really matters and greater trust in our teams. The team, for its part, feels trusted and empowered, the ultimate result being higher productivity, creativity, smart risk-taking, and higher morale.


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