Management tips: How to recognise fear in your team and stop it damaging your staff and your company

Fear is one of the most powerful forces in the workplace today. Many bosses use it, deliberately or not, to motivate their teams, to keep control of what is happening, and to make things happen the way they want them to happen.

The most easily recognised symptom of fear in an organisation is a reluctance to speak up because of fear of repercussions. A good question in any organisation to assess the level of fear is: ‘What can’t you talk about around here?’

In listening to the answers, it is important to recognise that it may have taken a lot of courage for someone to talk to you about what people are afraid to say when they are at work.

Other typical behaviours that exist in fear-filled organisations include blame, making excuses, being cynical, and restricting the flow of information or participation in important decisions.

Also common are the emphasis on and compliance with processes, procedures, policies and rights, as well as discrediting each other’s competence, a general lack of willingness to take accountability, and undermining each other’s efforts.

If you are a leader, do you recognise these characteristics in the team that you are in charge of? You need to know that the fear in your organisation is damaging your people and your business. And you need to act quickly to repair the damage before it is too late.

How the brain responds to fear

In the book I have recently co-authored, The Fear-Free Organization – Vital Insights From Neuroscience to Transform Your Business Culture, we describe recent advances in neuroscience that are showing us how the brain works. Neuroscientists understand that the brain is a hierarchical structure built from the bottom up, consisting of three parts.

The oldest part of the brain is called the reptilian brain and it ensures survival by regulating basic bodily functions. The mammalian brain evolved next and is the centre of emotions and memory. Finally, the cognitive brain developed, which is related to language, logic and conscious decision-making.

Whenever the brain encounters threat or danger, it is the mammalian brain that responds the quickest. Immediate reactions are all defined by emotions, which have been shaped by past experiences and relationships. It is only later that the cognitive part of the brain tries to make sense of what is happening.

The eight human emotions

Emotions rule the brain, and it is generally agreed that there are eight basic emotions that underpin everything people do, think and feel.

The majority of them are related to escape or avoidance: fear, anger, disgust, shame and sadness. Two are to do with positive attachments to people, objects and action: excitement/joy and trust/love. The eighth can go either way: surprise/startle or surprise/delight.

Of all the emotions, fear is the most important one because it is directly linked to keeping us safe and ensuring our survival. It is also the easiest emotion to trigger and often has the biggest impact.

When fear is triggered, the brain focuses on dealing with it to the detriment of anything else it has to do – including work. The body is flooded with action-evoking chemicals (e.g. hormones) to get ready to respond with the escape or avoidance actions: fight, flight or freeze.

If the threat cannot be resolved, physical and mental health risk being affected, and illness may result.

What people are most afraid of at work

Fear in an organisation is triggered by real or perceived threats. People respond very quickly to being threatened, however subtly it is being done.

Threats at work are invariably to do with losing something of importance. Examples of what people at work most fear losing, and how that translates into specific fears, include:

  • Power and/or status: the fear of not being promoted or of losing the job.
  • Predictability: the fear of getting things wrong, of not being good enough.
  • Having control over events: the fear of doing a job that is hated or demeaning, of working long hours, of doing a thankless task with no reward.
  • Feeling safe with others: the fear of being judged unfairly, of not being appreciated, of dealing with difficult people, of being bullied.
  • Having credibility and a good reputation: the fear of being wrong, failing, being rejected, or of not performing well.
How to stop fear in the workplace

The antidote to fear is trust, founded on good relationships. So the best way for you to eradicate fear in your organisation is to trigger the ‘attachment’ emotions of trust/love and excitement/joy when working with others.

This enables the brains in your employees to stop looking out for threats and concentrate on the work in hand. Energy flows in the brain and body systems function at their most optimal; relationships becomes positive and work will be productive. If you can also trigger the surprise/delight emotion, this will enhance creativity at work.

Sue Paterson photo 100x117 The Fear-Free Organization book cover 100x117

Dr Sue Paterson is the co-author of The Fear-Free Organization: Vital Insights from Neuroscience to Transform your Business Culture, a pioneering new book, written with Joan Kingsley and Dr Paul Brown. It draws attention to the need for senior staff to appreciate how fear may be ruling their businesses, and how this is affecting their teams, prohibiting the development of new ideas, creativity and unlimited potential. From £29.99 from all good booksellers and Kogan Page