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Fear in the Workplace

by Nicholas Edwards on November 27, 2018

What has the power to stifle creativity, strangle productivity and undermine even the most accomplished professional? What blocks the path to progress, raises suspicion, and pits people against one another? What is the root of all anger, self-doubt and controlling behaviour?

The answer, of course, is fear – and its prevalence in the workplace is something that we must all address.

What causes fear at work?

Fear in the workplace is usually the result of a negative or destructive work culture. This can be due to a toxic atmosphere, an aggressive or impersonal approach to people management, or a resistance to change. Here are some examples:

  • A culture of hire and fire

If you’ve ever worked for a company where people seemingly disappear overnight, you’ll know the sense of fear this can create among staff. This is made worse when the reasons for dismissals are kept secret, leaving staff to jump to their own conclusions.

  • A culture of ‘yes’

Some workplaces are so enveloped in fear that employees feel that they cannot speak their minds or offer alternative opinions, for fear of falling out of favour with those in power. The result is an environment where the decision makers are always right, even when they are clearly wrong.

  • A top-down approach to management

Although the go-to structure for many organisations, the traditional top-down hierarchy naturally places most people in a position of subordination. Decisions and orders are made unilaterally and must be obeyed by those further down. This can create a fear of those in power.

  • A culture of control

Control itself is a form of fear – the fear of trusting others to get stuff done. This can take the form of the constant measurement and rating of performance, micromanagement, constant surveillance of work activities and a lack of flexibility in approaches to work. This can be stifling for employees, who live in fear of making a wrong step.

How does it manifest?

Spending forty hours a week in a fear-based environment can have a profound negative impact on employees, causing crippling self-doubt and uncertainty. Here are just some of the ways this can play out:

“My work isn’t good enough. I’ll be found out any day now.”

 “I don’t fit in. I don’t belong here.”

“What if I say the wrong thing?”

“Two of my colleagues have been fired in the last month. Surely I’m next.”

“I’m constantly being watched. I can’t afford to slip up.”

Now, how is anyone supposed to feel engaged or enthusiastic about their job with this going on in their head?

What are the effects?

The effects of a fear-based workplace can be wide-ranging and extremely damaging – not only to individuals but to the business itself. Here are just some of the ways fear can damage an organisation and its staff.

  • A lack of creativity

Fear-based work cultures can strangle the creative instinct, creating an environment where nobody dares take risks for fear of failure. But failure is a great teacher – how else do we learn and grow? If you work in an environment where failure is punished, it’s likely that true creativity and innovation are being stifled.

  • A lack of honesty and openness

If people are afraid to speak their mind or challenge the status quo, you’ll end up with a work environment where nothing ever changes. Worse still, you’ll miss out on a wealth of different ideas and opinions, all informed by people’s unique experiences, which could be of huge benefit to the organisation.

  • Employees that are constantly looking over their shoulder

The result of being constantly monitored, measured and disciplined is that people are terrified of making mistakes or showing any sign of weakness. Keeping this up can be draining, and can make it difficult for employees to separate work from free time.

  • Employees that are racked with self-doubt

Negative, fear-based work environments can cause even the most capable employees to doubt themselves. This is also known as ‘imposter syndrome’, where despite evidence to the contrary, employees become convinced that they are out of their depth and will be discovered as a fraud at any moment.

  • Mental health issues

In the long term, fear, self-doubt and uncertainty can lead to poor mental health, aggravating or even causing conditions such as anxiety and depression. According to the Mental Health Foundation, one in 6.8 employees experiences mental health problems in the workplace, showing that this is a widespread problem.

  • Poor performance and low productivity

Contrary to what some authoritarian bosses my think, instilling a sense of fear in the workplace does not lead to long-term success. Sure, in the short term, fear can ‘motivate’ people to do more. But over time, this saps energy and lowers morale, resulting in a workforce that is stifled and strung out.

What can we do about it?

Here are some practical steps you can take to help make the workplace a happier, less fearful place for everyone.

  • Trust more

Trust forms the backbone of all healthy relationships and is key to creating an open, honest and creative environment. Managers need to place trust in their team – after all, why hire people if you don’t believe they can do their jobs properly? Likewise, employees need to be able to trust that colleagues and managers will accept them for who they are, and listen to their opinions and ideas without judgement.

  • Be more transparent

A lot of fear comes from not knowing. Being more transparent helps everyone understand the reasons behind decisions and the direction that the company is heading. This means communicating openly with everyone, not just those at the top.

  • Give real-time feedback

Regular feedback helps both managers and employees address issues as they arise, rather than when it is too late. It also gives employees a forum for discussing any concerns they may have. In the long-term, this helps form healthy, honest and open relationships between managers and their teams.

  • Embrace the individual

People are much more likely to feel comfortable at work if they are able to be themselves. By celebrating the uniqueness of each individual, you can create a workplace that is buzzing with creativity and ideas. Put inclusivity and diversity at the top of your agenda. This doesn’t just mean a diversity of people, but a diversity of ideas, opinions and ways of working.

Putting people first

At People First, we’ve built a revolutionary software platform and ethos designed to promote a more employee-centric, human approach to work.

Whether through augmented check-ins or our personal digital assistant, People First helps employees to get the most out of their professional lives, helping to create an environment where everyone can be heard. The end result is a happier, more open and less fearful workplace.

To find out how People First can transform the way you work, why not get in touch today. Simply click on the chat icon at the bottom right of your screen to talk to a People First professional.