Fear in the workplace is insidious. It infects individuals, then teams, and eventually puts company culture at risk. But you shouldn’t confuse fear with anxiety: Anxiety is felt on the heels of a professional challenge or with an opportunity that carries risk, and is often a personal growth opportunity. Fear is not.
Through my previous role as a leader at a Fortune 500 company, and in my current role building a startup from scratch to eight figures in annual revenue, I’ve seen many forms of fear in the workplace. Trust me, none of them are healthy, no matter how we try to spin it.
As a leader, it is your responsibility to remove fear from your workplace. Firstly, you need to accept that fear exists. Once you’ve accepted its existence, you can begin to mitigate it. To start off, identify some examples by looking out for these behaviors:
- Someone chooses not to give important feedback to another person (fear of an “explosion” from the recipient or retaliation)
- People don’t share their ideas in group settings (fear of humiliation or wasted effort)
- Someone fears the addition of a new team member (fear of replacement or change)
- People don’t take risks (fear of punishment or failure)
- Someone doesn’t put their best foot forward in their job function (fear of failure or lack of support)
Several more examples exist; these are simply a few of the most common. Often, we trap ourselves by explaining that these are “just the way things are” or are “challenges that a great employee should overcome.” We attempt to justify their existence when we should instead acknowledge them, then stomp them out.
As a leader, you have the authority and the responsibility to eradicate fear from your organization. If you don’t take action, it’s unlikely that anyone else will, and your boat will eventually sink as your people focus on protecting themselves by withdrawing and playing it safe (or worse, attacking others). By removing fear from the equation, your team will be more comfortable, inspired, selfless and ultimately more productive. Here are some great ways to get started that you can use to encourage others to follow in your footsteps.
Don’t React Negatively to News of Any Kind
When we immediately react after we receive bad news, we create fear. Even something as minor as a wince or an eye roll can have long-lasting effects. Think of it this way: now that you know about the bad news, you can do something to improve the situation. If you instill fear in the messenger, they won’t bring future issues to your attention, and you won’t have a chance to solve those issues before they cause even more significant damage.
Withhold your reaction and become the messenger’s partner. Take a deep breath and thank them for telling you. If they didn’t, the situation could get worse. Then, commit to solving the issue with them (even if it’s by giving them direction and delegating it back to them).
Never Shrug Someone Off
When two parties cannot agree on a mutual solution, we call it an impasse. Impasses happen all the time and aren’t worth overreacting to, but you can create fear when you determine to go separate ways when you can agree on a solution. The next time that person thinks you don’t agree with them, they could avoid the discussion altogether. For you to be an effective leader, you need people to know for a fact that even if they reach an impasse with you, a professional conclusion will follow.
Instead of shrugging them off, become both a student and a teacher, and ask your partner to do the same. You are at an impasse because you have different information, goals or opinions. Often, a logical and mutually beneficial conclusion will emerge by way of mutual understanding or compromise.
Make Your Intentions Known
Fear is often introduced into a workplace when people misunderstand what another person is intending to do. Say a person proposes to implement a new process or hire a new role into the company: human nature causes everyone else to quickly focus on their own pain related to the new process or role. They then become combative, saying things like, “He doesn’t even understand what this will do to me.” If you make your intentions known, people will quickly become your partner rather than your opponent.
First, explain what you are trying to accomplish and why. If possible, proactively include considerations for their goals in your goals. Then introduce your proposal as a plan to accomplish your goal. People can quickly appreciate and accept your “what” and your “why” and focus their objections on your “how.” In this structure, those who are opposed can provide constructive and collaborative feedback to the plan, rather than stewing and brooding because they don’t understand your intent.
Acknowledge an Idea Before Accepting or Rejecting It
In group settings, it’s common for someone to raise an idea just to be quickly shut down. The embarrassment attached to being shut down in front of everyone can be tremendous, and can even be enough to cause them to choose to never raise an idea again. This is stifling to an organization, and instantly creates a culture of fear.
First, acknowledge the idea. This proves that the person is valuable and the idea has value (even if not enough to actually accept), and that raising ideas is simply a part of the process. Others will build comfort and confidence purely through observation. Then the idea can be accepted or rejected based on objective or subjective criteria, whichever is more appropriate. Not only have you prevented from introducing fear into the workplace, you’ve subtly trained everyone in the room how to pre-qualify their ideas before raising them — ultimately improving the productivity of the rest of the session.
These are a few examples of how to begin to remove fear from your workplace. More important than these examples is the disposition required to execute them. As you adjust your disposition to align with the points above, you’ll naturally begin to behave in ways that remove fear. All of your interactions with people will improve, your workplace will be energized, your stress level will be reduced, and everyone will become more productive.