Fear at Work Made Simple

Fear, the biggest killer of productivity, progress & personal satisfaction at work, attacks every area of an organisation: from top to bottom & from bottom to top. Where fear reigns, companies die or merge, to stay in the game. The antidotes to fear are free but cost us personally, are clear to see, yet lost in the busyness of our day. How do we change? We start at the beginning.

What is Fear?

Fear is being afraid of things that we know are threats & things that we think may be threats. Fear of an unknown or future threat is called 'anxiety'.

Fear is a defensive reaction by our brain, based upon the information it receives from our senses, which primes our body, through the release of chemicals (neurotransmitters & hormones) to fight, escape or freeze. When we are afraid, rational thinking becomes difficult, or impossible.

In short, fear helps us to stay safe. Not all fear is bad BUT too much fear IS bad.

For further information, see my article on Anxiety & Fear Made Simple.


Where Does Our Fear Come From?

[We absorb the fear messages of other]Our spectrum of fears develops as we grow up. What we see, hear, smell, touch & taste all influence how we react, as do the reactions of those around us, particularly parents, relatives, friends & people of influence, such as teachers.

Fear is not isolated to one area of life, one experience or one person. It is highly contagious, spreading like an unseen malignancy. We may be afraid of heights, but those feelings can also influence how we work & think in other situations, especially when under pressure. We are more likely to avoid the issue than tackle & resolve it.

Fears in others trigger (activate) our own fears.

Fear helps us respond to immediate or short-term problems. When those problems persist & become long-term ('chronic'), our brain cannot focus on anything other than resolving the problem. If we cannot resolve the issue we become anxious & stressed, eventually falling into depression. At the same time, our immune system is suppressed & we run an increased risk of serious illness.

Once again, I would encourage you to read my short article on anxiety & fear to understand this more fully.


Does Fear at Work Exist?

[Fear exists at work - blackboard tick image]Yes! Without a doubt. Wherever there are people there will be hidden or tangible fear of one kind or another.

In the workplace, we are usually surrounded by, or interact with, people. So fear will be there, affecting us all. That fear may be accepted, recognised & challenged, but if it remains unchallenged, it will run rampant. The time, effort & cost in rectifying its effects can be crippling, even terminal for the business concerned.

Using fear as a short-term strategy to get things done & keep control is short-sighted & dangerous, for all concerned.

Sue Patterson, an expert on workplace fear, highlights the use of fear as a weapon to threaten & coerce. Leaders use it against their workers, teams use it to gain power & status within organisations, colleagues use it against each other to be 'top dog'. Companies use fear to intimidate their perceived competition in the marketplace.

Workplace climates after the Covid-19 pandemic, are arguably more fearful, especially regarding job security, health issues or childcare.

Notice the close relationship between a need for control & increased fear. We will revisit this a little later in the section on power.


What Types of Workplace Fears Exist?

[Fear at work]Fears at work broadly involves people & situations. However, the root is always personal because fear involves us & our reaction: our emotional response to a situation & how we will be affected.

Fear is associated with negative outcomes & how they relate to us. We learn about each other's fears by asking questions & we only get a true idea when the person being asked can be honest.

Surveys (asking people questions) are usually anonymous because those being asked are less fearful of possible reprisals when their honesty does not align with the opinions of those asking the questions.

If we examine surveys from the past decade we get a good insight into what makes people afraid at work.

Most common fears at work usually relate to:

In 2012, 29% of respondents said that making an error on the job was their greatest fear, compared to 17% who’s biggest fear was dealing with a difficult client or customer, whilst 16% expressed that speaking in front of a group of people was their top fear.

However, since the Covid-19 pandemic, hygiene issues have become an extra source of fear at work. A survey conducted by Avansas, a European office supplier, about the major fears of British people returning to work after the pandemic, showed that 18% fear the office is not very safe. Reasons cited were:

In the same survey 25% felt the it was completely safe returning to the office, whilst 53% felt the office was somewhat safe.

For others, fears present a major barrier to choice & personal progress, also compromising recruitment of new workforce. A Jobsite survey published in 2019, revealed the following worrying statistics for employee & employer alike:

Many newer employees have less resilience, so are more prone to go into 'avoidance mode' when afraid, than facing their fears. Their fright, flight or freeze is working at full speed, unabated.

How do we address this lack of courage?

One of our first actions is to review the cultures we create & work in.


Power Over or Power With?

[Power in the workplace]The range of fears that people experience is very broad, but the type of fear is less relevant than WHY they experience the fears they do, in the workplace. Fear arises when people feel out of control, when they feel that they have lost or are losing power.

Identifying situations where people feel disempowered allows us start addressing the situation. Resolution is more difficult because it involves change, which another fear (or to be more correct, anxiety since the results of change are unknowns).

Problems fear set in when power comes before people.

Power is neutral but how that power is used, is not.

Power & status are BIG drivers in our society, especially within our businesses. Both focus on our 'power over' somebody else. We feel powerful, therefore, we are. It is destructive & selfish. At its root lies insecurity, fear of failure, low self-esteem, fear of insignificance. The focus is on 'me'. Fear of failure is endemic & a major driver in many corporations today. If this power over attitude comes from the top, it WILL filter down to infect the whole organisation.

What is the alternative?

'Power with.' Here, the focus is on success of the business rather than my success within the business. Fear-generating micro-management, which reinforces the message, 'You are not capable of doing this on your own' is replaced by sharing our power with colleagues. We say, 'I am here if you need me but I trust you'. Power with requires empathy. It is about demonstrating trust through our actions. It also requires humility because it says, 'I cannot do everything' or 'I do not know everything'. It speaks of interdependence rather than independence, team-work rather than isolated islands, 'we' rather than 'me'.

There is already evidence that the power over culture is collapsing. In the USA workers have been resigning their jobs in vast numbers. Likewise, UK workers have experienced a different way of working & like it. Ann Francke, chief executive officer of the CMI expects to see employees seeking out new roles that meet their changing demands and aspirations.

'Just offering big budget salaries isn’t cutting it anymore,' she said. 'Managers who aren’t adapting their working models will be left wanting - and their organisations will pay the price.'

Sadly, recognising the presence of fear in an organisation & a need to change is most difficult in fear-ridden & fear-driven cultures, the very place it needs to happen.


Finite, Games, Infinite Games & Fear

[Finite or infinite game?]Life & business strategy have been likened to a game where players either play to win or play to keep the game in progress.

Playing to win is a 'finite game' with a start, an end & an aim to beat the competition. Finite strategy is short-term. Infinite games develop as they go along & rules may change as players strive to keep the game in play. Infinite strategy is long-term & the only competition is with ourselves.

People playing the same type of game harmonise better because everybody plays to the same rules. When there is a clash of the two types of game, stress & fear abound. How can those playing to win (be number one, the best, sell the most, have most followers) work comfortably alongside those who are interested in only being their best without competition or winning?

Simon Sinek uses a great example of two leading tech companies with two different games. One is focused on being better than the competition, the other focuses on how they can best serve their customer. The values, method &, dare I say, stress levels of the finite player are completely different to those of the infinite player.

Could these two ever merge? Yes.

Would they be successful? No!

One danger of being finite is that in our need to win, we lose sight of what enables us to win: our employees. Customer-focus has its place, but neglecting those who enable the company to meet the expectations of those customers, our employees, is suicidal for the business. In the drive for short-term gains it can be easy to lose sight of people. It is too easy to remove empathy, concern & creativity from our companies, focusing instead on quality, standards & compliance. Sure, these are important, but when we become compliance-orientated, we use it as a measuring stick for failure, rather than to create the best experience for all concerned. We lose sight of why we exist as a company, the human element exits & anxiety, stress & conflict turn-up at our invitation.

A friend of mine came up against this with a pensions company. This outward facing, customer-focused business has become so concerned with meeting internal compliance & making a profit that they had lost sight of serving their customers. They had even lost sight of complying with their own internal requirements, breaking court orders with no apology or concept of fault.


What Are the Symptoms of Fear at Work?

[What are fear symptoms in the workplace?]The major challenge for business is to identify the symptoms of fear so that the underlying root can be understood & tackled.

Here are symptoms of fear at work in an organisation or group:

Questions to ask that help give an indication of the general culture, communications culture & how people feel include:

We have looked at the reasons for fear & identified symptoms so How can we control & eliminate debilitating fear in our places of work?


Antidotes to Fear at Work

[Antidotes to fear in the workplace?]The best plans & solutions in the world remain useless until they are implemented & to implement requires personal commitment. Antidotes to fear at work start with 'me'.

Collaboration, trust and mutual respect between employees and employers is essential to rebuild trust & change our workplace culture. It must also start at the top.

Recognising fear in the workplace is the first important step in changing the situation & starting to build a fear-free organisation.

All the symptoms highlighted indicate poor & weak relationships, poor or no communication, low or no trust & low or no self-confidence in that particular environment. The good news is, the situation can change but, as with illness, we must tackle the cause to eradicate the disease. Treating symptoms may bring temporary relief but the disease still rages beneath the surface, only to re-appear, usually elsewhere in a more virulent & malignant form. We don not tackle skin cancer with sticking plaster. Neither should we tackle fear by reprimanding poor performance or behaviour.

It is much better to trigger the 'attachment' emotions of trust/love and excitement/joy when working with others. This enables the brain to stop looking for threats & focus on the task. Energy is not diverted or dissipated elsewhere. We are more healthy, our relationships inspire & inject life (rather than sucking it out) & work becomes productive. If surprise or delight are also triggered, creativity is enhanced.

Good communication, strong relationships, self-confidence & strengthening trust are the antidotes to fear & key to success in the workplace. For further reading see Stuart's article on The 'Secret' of Success Made Simple.

The ability to identify fears, face them, challenge them & overcome them is crucial for progress & success because we grow in confidence whilst being surprised, excited & delighted by what we achieve. We build trust in ourselves & communicate our achievements to colleagues, building better relationships with others. We also stretch ourselves by walking outside of our comfort zone, learn that facing & overcoming fears is exhilarating. So that 33% who avoid our jobs because of fears or the 67% of people who avoid public speaking may just be drawn into the 'I will try' fold.

When we tackle the 'why' we kill fear at its root, wiping out many effects of the malignancy. Sure there will be scars, but scars heal when conflict is replaced by trust. Even if 'still visible' when healed they are a useful reminder of how things were & how far we have come.

If you are interested in finding out more, please contact Stuart using the details immediately below.


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Meet The Beasts: Contact Information

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Dr Stuart Wood
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Telephone: + 44 1509 553362
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E-mail: stuart@meetthebeasts.com