Facing up to a culture of fear – Building resilience series, part I

February 21, 2020

Read time 5 min

Many people think we should keep our emotions out of the workplace – or at least that our feelings shouldn’t affect the work that we do. But our emotions affect us constantly, whether at work or at home, and one of the strongest, most primal emotion is fear.

When we are afraid it affects everything we do and feel, and we cannot suppress the emotion through sheer force of will. While we are encouraged to hide our fears in the workplace, or pretend they don’t exist, fear is a daily reality for many of us, exerting a toll on individuals, teams, and organizations. 

After working in many large companies, I have come to realize how common it is for a culture of fear to develop – and how important it is to recognize it when it does. This blog post looks at the phenomenon of fear: what causes it, what it leads to, and what perpetuates it in a workplace. In a second follow-up post I will explore practical ways we can handle fear at work.

How fear affects us

Fear consumes a lot of energy and it reduces the capacity to function at every level, from individuals to teams to whole organizations.

Fear is an uncomfortable, unwelcome feeling and often we try to avoid it.  This causes many different types of dysfunctional behavior, such as blaming, avoidance of risk or hiding issues to look good.

Fear is often culturally taboo – especially for leaders. A lot of people fail to recognize that they’re afraid, instead becoming angry or withdrawn. These very same people aren’t typically able to handle fear in others, either. 

What are we afraid of – and why?

Not once have I met a leader who says it’s their intention to lead with fear. It is most often an unintended consequence, where someone hasn’t realized the impact of their behavior. Most people recognize the negative impact of fear and would prefer a culture based on trust – but it is easy for anyone, especially leaders, to inadvertently slip into behaviors that trigger fear. 

There are several things we can be afraid of at work:

  • Social pain, e.g. being mistreated or excluded from a group, or being laughed at
  • Loss of status
  • Loss of appreciation
  • Loss of work, economic uncertainty
  • Loss of identity
  • Fear of harming others

Our brains are specifically tuned to recognize threats, and when we sense one, fear is a natural human response. In fact, we’re five times more attuned to threats than rewards. This fact has ensured the survival of humans as species; by recognizing the rustling in the bushes as a threat and running away, we gave ourselves a better chance of survival.

In difficult business situations or when there is high pressure or big changes, many people feel threatened and afraid, which is quite natural. There is nothing wrong in letting yourself feel the fear – it’s the inability to recognize and handle fear that causes problems.

More pressure, more stress

Pressure also affects people in another way: the more pressure people feel, the more stressed they get. Of course, people react to stress in different ways, but one common aspect of all stress behavior is a reduction in our ability to interact with others. This leads to more friction, conflict, and withdrawal, and people are less likely to feel that they are getting what they need from interaction. 

In addition, stress increases our need for support and positive interactions, while reducing our ability to support others. This creates an unfortunate domino effect: the amount of social pain in the organization increases while stress levels rise. 

There’s no denying that we’re social animals, and social pain feels as bad as physical pain. As a consequence, people suffer and do their best to avoid any social pain, which leads to more isolation, weaker connections between people, and more fear.

A culture of fear is born

A culture of fear can emerge when external threats increase, when big changes occur, or when stress levels are raised for any reason. It can also arise due to unhealthy interactions within an organization, such as a culture that allows yelling and disrespectful behavior. If the fear this causes can’t be handled constructively, it can spread from one team to another. 

As levels of fear increase, people feel less energetic and experience less trust and sense of community, which reduces their ability to function effectively, respond to external threats, and make any necessary changes. It goes without saying that this amplifies the culture of fear, making it a vicious circle.

How to break the cycle

There will always be external pressures, big changes, and poor interaction at work, so there will also always be fear. In order to stop a feedback loop developing, organizations need to learn how to acknowledge and deal with fear. This is often easier said than done, because:

  • We aren’t used to talking about feelings at work 
  • Fear is an uncomfortable feeling
  • Shame is often connected to feelings of fear
  • Fear is often culturally taboo, especially for leaders

As strange as it may sound, the fear of fear is often worse than the fear itself. A crucial step is to make it safe to be afraid. Once that is done, fear loses its power and you can act with less stress, anxiety, and doubt – just as you are, safe and secure.  

On an individual level, we can learn to live with fear by developing our resilience and emotional intelligence. On a team and organizational level, breaking the culture of fear requires that we face our fears together and focus on improving interaction.

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