How to Manage Fear in the Workplace

By Heather Campbell

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Fear – it’s one of the certainties in life, along with death and taxes. We see its impact in both organisational and personal life. 

Just last week Mike Ashley hit the headlines for all the wrong reasons, when the fear culture at Sports Direct was uncovered. This week, it’s the football hooligans spreading fear throughout Euro 2016 who are in the news.

And its negative impact is far-reaching. Fear has a cascade effect – it doesn’t just impact those directly involved. Take a look at the current situation at Euro 2016 to see this. Football hooligans clash; fans not involved end up afraid, some coming home early, others are left wondering whether of not to travel after all.

And the teams themselves feel it. I’m sure Roy Hodgson has enough to focus on without having to appear on TV asking for the fighting to stop so that the team doesn’t get sent home early. Quite simply, fear spreads. It undermines focus, it undermines confidence, it undermines everything.

Organisations are no different. When fear is present in organisations, results suffer, performance suffers, people suffer. Our survey into the impact of fear in the workplace highlights this, with 50% of respondents agreeing that performance is significantly affected by fear.

And it really doesn’t have to be this way. The large majority of people in any organisation want to avoid working in a culture of fear. They want to be able to speak up, to challenge, to ask questions, to make decisions, to tackle problems without the fear that so often accompanies doing any of these things.

The good news is – unlike death and taxes – it is possible to take action to remove the unhealthy fear that is undermining results, performance and people. Here are the steps to get you started.

  • Take fear seriously. 100% of respondents to our survey said that fear exists in their organisation. 50% said it is having a significant negative impact. Would you ignore any other problems of a similar magnitude? Especially if it was within your power to do something about them?
  • Commit to at least investigating its presence and impact in your organisation. And, given the prevalence of fear in organisations today, the burden of proof here is on demonstrating it doesn’t exist rather than on proving that it does.
  • Listen to what people are saying about fear. They might not use that specific word – they may express their fear as being worried, having sleepless nights, feeling stressed out, working under too much pressure. And you’ll find it expressed in behaviours too – increasing resistance, reluctance to engage, lack of motivation. They’re all indicators that there’s fear in the system.
  • Plan action – work our what you need to address and make a start. Begin at the top. It’s really hard for people at more junior levels to tackle the fear that so often comes from the behaviours of those in more senior positions. Changing behaviours at the top will make it far easier for others to change their behaviours too.
  • Be patient – it’s taken a long time for fear to build in your organisation. It will take time to reduce it too.
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