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Fear in the workplace

There’s a theory that we have four basic emotions: fear, anger, sadness and joy, the primary colours of emotional life. Putting joy aside as self-evidently a good thing, it’s hard to believe that anyone would deliberately try to invoke sadness or anger in those that they lead. These can manifest as negative and destructive energies in the workplace.

So why is creating fear in the workplace still seen as acceptable? I don't mean fear as in intimidation, harassment or the expectation of imminent physical violence, but more the fear that develops as a result of a culture of implied sanctions and veiled threats. And why are so many managers still more comfortable with a coercive rather than a supportive and coaching style of leadership?

Perhaps the consequences of fear are not fully understood. Maybe it's not widely appreciated that fear is the number one enemy of creativity and that the anxious mind is rigid and limited as it seeks to solve a problem in more or less the same way, time and time again.

Perhaps some leaders confuse superficial compliance with real progress, but fail to notice the corrosive effects of passive aggression or the exaggeration of the strengths in those that they lead to the point that they become weaknesses.

And could it be that the retention rates of key talent are wrongly cited as evidence of great leadership when they are actually little more than a reflection of a lack of opportunity elsewhere?

Breaking the culture of fear and threat within an organisation might involve no more than a change of chief executive. While the banking sector has more than its fair share of examples of this, I have experienced fear-based tactics in a large government department and watched staff bloom as an overbearing and narcissistic leader moved on. In a further education college, I have seen an executive team pull together and take an average institution to outstanding as the new Principal gave them time, space and overall trust.

Adults are merely children with wrappers on! The way we function in organisations is a direct consequence of how we experienced our formative years and how we are now treated.

If early scripting was to please others, that's what people will do: even to the detriment of themselves and the organisations they work for. An aggressive boss who operates from a position of fear will just bring out the worst in people. If we were taught to avoid mistakes, the situation is no better. Desiring perfection in themselves, some people work harder and harder and tolerate no less than perfection in others.

If we were taught that other people cannot be trusted, our shrewdness will be bent into paranoia. And if we survived by retreating into our own worlds or quietly rebelling, that's what we will do too.

Fear can make people into extreme versions of themselves and mostly these extremes are not helpful. We lose perspective and the ability to flex and adapt. When we are relaxed we have choices but when we are frightened we seem to have none.

A great leader pulls the best out of people; he or she forces nothing upon them. There's focus, of course; a clarity about what needs to be achieved and realism about the start point. But there isn't the one-upmanship that is common to fear-based relationships. There's an existential position of equality - a belief that both the leader and the led have the right to be as human beings.

The boss who manages through fear achieves the opposite. Instead of encouraging adults to solve problems in the here and now he or she drives their staff into a child-like place. This infantilisation is ultimately fatal to organisational effectiveness. People are controlled rather than feeling that they have control; empowerment becomes a dirty word and cynicism sets in.

We can no longer offer security of employment in our organisations and institutions. Those days have passed. But this does not mean that the issue of psychological security has gone away. Where we feel centred and personally secure, we are at our best.

For those who can experience life in this way or whose early experiences have helped them to build up resilience, even immunity to stress and fear it is far easier to navigate life's vicissitudes.

However, for most people, how the external world impacts them on a daily basis makes a difference. When threatened, we can detach and retreat into ourselves or anxiously cling to sources of comfort. None of these reactions lend themselves to a positive and empowered workplace.

Even if employers can no longer offer job security, it is possible to foster a working environment where people develop have the space and support to develop confidence and self-efficacy; where the relationship between people is not based on the parent and the child but on two adults who come together to achieve more than they can alone. It is in such cultures that fear has no place.

Five tell-tale signs of a fear based culture:


  • There is a preoccupation with status and conformity and where rules have precedence over common sense
  • Distinct in-groups and out-groups exist and there's little opportunity to cross the boundaries between them
  • Everything is measured but nothing is questioned
  • Appraisals are only ever one-way
  • The accent is on pace but short term gain is known to be at long term cost


Chris Welford (pictured) is managing director of business psychologists, Sixth Sense Consulting