Taming workplace fear

Taming workplace fear

Man’s earliest ancestors lived in treacherous times. Tribes and clans were formed as a means of protection against a menacing environment. Over the ages, our vigilance for social safety continues.

The Amygdala or brain stem is central to human defense mechanisms. In addition to managing subconscious functions like heartbeat and breathing, this “Reptilian” part of our brain is constantly on the lookout for hazards or peril.

In the workplace, we exhibit this primeval unease as a yearning to belong. University research on stress-related studies concluded, “the highest rise in cortisol levels (hormone responsible for ‘fight or flight’ response) occurs from threats to one’s social acceptance, esteem or status.” This basic instinct explains why connecting with work colleagues and superiors is so important. We are alert to signals and cues about our standing with others. A late deliverable or missed expectation sets off our alarms.

This fear is visceral. Even the most logical of us gets distracted by irrational worst case scenarios. Despite the absurd odds against these outcomes, we waste our attention ruminating over self-preservation tactics.

The signs of workplace fear are easy to spot, as evident at the C-level as the front-line staff. Once frightened, people become wary of failure. Leaders are more directive, insisting on frequent status updates or micromanaging results. Risk-taking dries up across the organization. Creativity is quashed. Unwilling to stretch themselves, team members stop learning and growing, a death knell for company success. Instead, everyone monitors communications channels closely, eager to appear “on top of things” and remain in good favor. The resulting stress and tension envelopes the organization like a dense fog.

So how do we beat workplace fear?


First, shine a light on the problem. Left in the dark, fear is dangerous. Out in the open, fear is exposed as little more than silly, self-induced angst.

Be vulnerable. Apprehension about our status in the office is natural. So why not admit how we feel? Being the first to express our true emotions sets the tone for others to be honest. Candid conversations about our common experience relieves pressure while reducing worry.

Build Community: We all have an innate desire to belong. Each of us needs to feel accepted, appreciated, valued and respected. We want to hear the reinforcing words, the signals that we are firmly grafted into the group.

So, take the time to fortify the connection with your teammates. “I’ve got your back.” “We’re part of something special.” “I believe in you.” “No matter what, we’ll find a way.” These are the bonds we seek in our workplace.

Workplace fear is real. And detrimental to company success. Calling out the issue and opening up about the emotions we all experience is a good start. Then, strengthen the connection – we’re all in this together and it’s awesome to have you with me!

Dave Smith is an Associate with Impact Americas. He's an experienced executive coach and organizational strategist. He provides counsel on progressive organizational methods which spawn innovation and place customer experience at the center of the firm.