FEAR in the Workplace

“Fear is an aggressive predator of joy and creativity in the workplace.” Terence Deal & M.K. Key

The price tag on fear is high – for business and our own well-being. Emotional contagion is real. Fear is catchy. Old fears get easily activated. The way we talk to ourselves is a critically important factor in how we activate our fears. External events are real, but are in charge of your own narrative.
Some years ago we came across an important book that has shaped our thinking about workplace culture. , Driving Fear from the Workplace, by Dan Oestreich and Kathleen Ryan, revealed the realities and costs of the culture of fear that pervades so many workplaces.
Sadly, it seems that fear is still a big player in today’s workplace. 
The book’s title was inspired by a one of the “Fourteen Key Principles for Management Effectiveness” from the founder of the 80′s Quality Movement, the late W. Edwards Deming.  Deming’s 8th Key Principle
Drive out fear, so that everyone may work effectively for the company.

Seems like a remarkably logical premise, doesn’t it?  So, why then is fear so prevalent throughout most workplaces (of every shape, type and size)?  The answers are deep and complex. Partly, they go to two roots: the dominant driving memes of a culture – and our own personal understanding and skills in managing internal and external fears. Every dominant societal institution is a fear carrier. We can’t think of one that’s fear-free.  Can you?

Now we’re not saying that fear doesn’t have a biological protective  purpose – but we’ve gone way beyond that in explaining, promoting and expressing fear in our cultures.  Psychologists describe the innate emotion of fear as the stimulus response to a perceived threat. That’s the essence of what’s called the flight or fight responsePerceived threat are the operative words here.  Fear does not have to be REAL to turn on the corrosive physiological mechanism of the flight or fight response. At some level, we just have to perceive that it might be real. So FEAR in most cases (unless there really is someone lurking in the shadows, or a rattlesnake on the path in front of us) is a FUTURE – BASED emotion that can control our thinking, feelings and behaviors without being real!

“We can’t run a successful society when fear-based (non thinking) is the norm.” Jason Seiden

Driving Fear from the Workplace describes some of the “undiscussables” (the secrets that everyone knows) at work:

  • Management practices
  • Co-worker performance
  • Compensation and benefits
  • Change
  • Bad news
  • Conflict
  • Personal problems
  • Individual feelings

Certainly, there have been advances in the ways that organizations handle employee input into these areas – but in our experience, we’ve got a long way to go, especially in dealing with the last two items on the list – personal problems and individual feelings. Partly, this stems from the persistent collective belief that there is no place in business for the personal and a general lack of emotional intelligence in the average workplace.

There’s another important force that keeps fear alive in the workplace – too many people still believe that fear is a desirable emotional driver at work.  We regularly encounter people who still see fear as a positive and useful motivational tool to drive their own – or other’s performance.  We strongly disagree. We believe that these ideas are relics of the old command and control models of management which dramatically limit personal and organizational evolution.  There are a whole range of emotions that could play a much more inspiring and energizing role as motivational drivers than scaring ourselves and our colleagues into submission!

So – does your workplace exhibit the signs of a fear-based culture? A few examples:

  • Lack of willingness to speak up about all or certain issues
  • A culture of aggression (as opposed to more balanced assertion)
  • Leaders who model fear-based behaviors as the norm
  • Unwillingness to assert for one’s own needs (scheduling, amount of time spent at work, work overload, co-worker issues)
  • Excessive gossip and blame permeating teams and departments

Although we are likely to be witnessing or experiencing fallout from fear where we work – it’s important to assess the degree to which the culture is driven by it. It’s also important to understand how much of the “fear factor”  we bring to the table from our own emotional baggage.  Because emotional contagion is real allowing our fears to intermingle with the culture’s fears can make for an energy sapping low productivity cycle that affects everyone.

Thanks for reading,
Louise Altman, Intentional Communication Consultants
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