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FEAR in the Workplace

March 18, 2010


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

Some years ago we came across an important book that has shaped our thinking about workplace culture.  Revised in ’98, 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 an even bigger player in today’s workplace. Given the economic tsunami of the past 18 months – and prospects for continued contraction – it looks like fear will continue to be a dominant emotion in the workplace landscape for the near future, at least.

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 PrincipleDrive out fear, so that everyone may work effectively for the company.

Wow – 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 protection 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 response.

Perceived 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 rattle snake 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 and taking the time to comment, subscribe, share, like and tweet this article. It’s appreciated.

Louise Altman, Partner, Intentional Communication Consultants

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. March 18, 2010 3:19 pm

    Really wonderful post, Louise and George!

    “Because emotional contagion is real…” Yes…so true. I sometimes think people at work see it as the easiest gift to give. 😉 And as you say…it doesn’t have to be that way. Humanity – externally and internally – is good business, plain and simple.

    Thanks again for another thoughtful post. Wouldn’t it be great if this were the water cooler buzz! Pass it on…

    ~ Ronnie Ann

    • March 18, 2010 4:27 pm

      Dear Ronnie,
      Thanks so much! You’ve got it right – humanity is good for business. Imagine the possibilities?
      It really boils down to the question: What do we believe brings out the best in people? A surprisingly (or maybe not so) amount of people still believe it’s fear! Old conditioning still alive and kicking everywhere!
      Keep up the fab work over at Work Coach Cafe!

      Louise & George

  2. Jack Braumiller permalink
    February 11, 2014 4:01 pm

    Dear Louise,

    Thank you for the excellent post.

    In the early days of my managerial career the company I worked for had me attend a management workshop. Now you would think they would bring in your typical rah, rah speaker, but no, they had a sixty year old lady with a high school diploma and thirty years experience as a line worker in a textile mill teach me the most effective way to motivate employees. In a nut shell, she said you need to capture three things with each employee if you want to get the most out of them, their heart, head, and body.

    Their heart by taking an interest in their welfare and their family; their mind by recognizing & rewarding innovation and allowing each employee to personalize the processes they use to complete their work, as long as it met the departments goals; their body by maintaining open lines of communication and reaffirming goals & expectations.

    In short, I became a life coach and teacher, which allowed my employees to blossom both personally and professionally. In return my department consistently surpassed budgeted goals while reaping the benefits of smaller issues that add up over time, i.e., reduced sick days, employee turnover, litigation & complaints, etc.

    Why companies around the world don’t adopt this approach is beyond me. Fear can be used as a short term motivator but in the long run it has a significant negative impact on the bottom line and our society as a whole.


    • February 11, 2014 4:38 pm

      Hi Jack
      thanks for sharing your experience in such wonderful detail. The wisdom this woman brought to your group is timeless. It will always work. When we engage people’s hearts, minds and bodies we reach deep into their potential to self-motivate and flourish. Too many people, including many in senior leadership, still “swear” by the fear model for “compliance.” A short-term motivator as you say – at best.

      thanks again for reading and commenting~

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