Is Fear Useful, or Just. . . Scary?
By Daniel Robin
How do you now deal with fear at work? This article pinpoints the types of fear that cause needless suffering, and advocates workplaces that consistently maintain an "absence of threat."
For better or for worse, we all bring our personal history to our workplace relationships. Many of us learned "fear tactics" from our parents, who, with good intentions and limited options, used threats to get us to obey their authority. This just doesn't work. When such authority is imposed at work, it not only destroys morale, but left unaddressed, breeds office politics, CYA, turf wars, entrenched negativity. . . reinforcing a cycle of mistrust.
In many workplaces, this unfortunate pattern begins when employees are afraid to ask questions or shy away from asserting their truth. Pride and trust are undermined, and relationships turn sour. So what are we dealing with here? Are there different "types" of fear: some you can count on (like feelings of apprehension during a performance review) while others are indicative of a broken process ("I can't speak up; they'll fire me!")?
Is There Anything Good About Fear?
Surprisingly, many executives quietly (perhaps unconsciously) assume that fear is "good" -- or inadvertently cause fear in others in an attempt to motivate. Think about it. If you wanted something done and encountered resistance, certainly one way to "inspire" action is to highlight the consequence of not doing it, making that more distasteful than the resistance. And will that work?
Make no mistake: externally imposed fear is not an effective motivational tool. Though it may yield short-term gains, it usually backfires. This practice, part of the legacy of traditional hierarchies, prevents people from doing their best. A study of 580 companies by the American Quality Foundation found that imposed fear is simply destructive. . .it either inhibits or causes overreaction such as knee-jerk resistance. Speak up about it and interrupt the cycle.
Whose Motives are These?
Instead of extrinsic motivation, when you have a goal that involves other people, demonstrate leadership by tapping into the vast ocean of intrinsic motivaters. Guess what? People are already motivated, and wise leaders need only harness that already exists. If you get resistance, tap into and understand that, too. People are far more likely to go the extra mile when they see a genuine concern for employee well-being -- not the often heard "You'd better. . . or else. . . and that's final."
On the other hand, fear that comes from within you -- such as a concern that you might not meet a deadline you voluntarily agreed to -- produces discomfort or anxiety and if it doesn't cause overwhelm, will inspire action.
Manageable, self-imposed fear acts as the fuel for change or improvement. It propels us forward and helps us move through stuck points or avoid hazards. It is a natural part of learning. But if I'm concerned about being judged or penalized or fired. . . I'm not going to learn, and I might not even hang around, let alone perform well.
So if we can fully commit to building a workplace culture where externally-imposed fear is headed for extinction, we'll all win.
What Can Be Done To Handle Fear?
First: Acknowledge what you don't want. Second: Decide if there's anything you need to do to prevent that downside. Third: If so, formulate a plan to handle it; if not, find a way to live with (come to terms with) the downside -- even if it never comes to pass, at least you'd know you could handle it if necessary.
Let your response to fear teach you what it's like to be fully present. Help the leaders understand the impact of their behavior. By the way, do remember to breathe!