How to handle workplace fear

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Whether it’s apprehension over annual reviews or uncertainty about job security, workplace fear can have a huge impact on staff and leaders simply can’t afford to ignore it, warns one academic.

“Full-scale organisational crises, dismal quarterly results, and even off-the-cuff negative comments by those in charge can kick-start fear in a workplace,” says Christine Pearson, professor of global leadership at the Thunderbird School of Global Management.

According to Pearson, workplace fear often pushes employees into “fight, flee, or freeze” mode yet many firms still expect staff to continue business as usual even in the face of realistic threats.

“The prevalence and strength of this workplace norm cause employees to be very reluctant to admit that they are afraid,” says Pearson. “Nonetheless, it is essential to address fear at work because this negative emotion packs a wallop.”

Pearson warns that the consequences of workplace fear are far and wide-reaching – the side effects include employee disengagement and presenteeism as well as reduced decision-making abilities and a significant drop in confidence.

“Fear stimulates catastrophic thinking, leading employees to replay the past, fret about the future, and disengage from the present,” she says. “Being scared undermines employees’ tolerance for ambiguity and complexity, a crucial success factor for today’s competitive environment.”

Arizona-based Pearson has studied negative emotions and their role within the workplace for over 20 years – she says fear is the emotion most likely to cause employees to quit, though they rarely admit the reason to leaders within their organisation.

Due to the reluctance from employees to admit their fears – even if they’re exiting an organisation – Pearson says the burden is on senior leaders to address and alleviate concerns.

“Deal with employee fear head-on,” she urges. “Action is a powerful antidote to fear. Our research suggests that being frank and providing reasonable, realistic reassurance can signal that someone is in control. This awareness can help employees who are afraid.”

Pearson says employers should give staff the opportunity to vent but ensure they aren’t exaggerating perceived dangers.

“To keep fear from spinning out of control, be honest and up front about challenges while infusing authentic enthusiasm about realistic opportunities and benefits that may lie ahead,” she says.

“Share your own concerns reasonably to ease others into discussing theirs. Encourage employees to gather facts and help them face their individual fears rather than slipping into the victim’s role, a perspective that engenders hopelessness and unhappiness.”

Pearson also encourages senior leaders to be open about potential changes, even if they think they’ll cause a certain level of fear in the workplace, as the information will likely leak out anyway.

“A common source and stimulant of workplace anxiety is the rumour mill. My fellow researchers and I have observed managers and executives attempt to mitigate fear by withholding details of changes on the horizon. Rather than assuaging concerns, however, lack of information leads to speculation, often with worse outcomes than reality would hold.

“To ward off fear and avert this problem, over-communicate and find ways to recognise or reward those who persist despite their fears.”

 

Christine Pearson is a professor of global leadership at the Thunderbird School of Global Management – more information about the role of negative emotions in the workplace, as well as how leaders can address them, can be found online.

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