What is fear?
Fear is best defined as an emotional response to a known or definite threat, for example when an agitated, violent mugger approaches you whilst on a dark street, or the boss tells you he does not like the work you are doing and threatens you with some action. Fear can be triggered by real or imagined threats – the brain cannot distinguish between the two – but in either case the important thing is that you perceive the threat to be definite. Fear gets your body ready to respond to the danger, triggering the body’s fight, flight or freeze responses, with physical changes such as rapid breathing, increased heart rate and sweating.
Fear in the workplace
Fear at work is often to do with the threat of losing something of importance. The SCARF model (Rock, 2008) is useful to summarise what people at work most fear losing:
Status: the fear of losing power and/or status.
Includes the fear of not being promoted or awarded a pay rise, and of losing the job.
Certainty: the fear of being unable to predict how things will turn out.
Includes the fear of making a mistake, of not being good enough.
Autonomy: the fear of losing a sense of control over events.
Includes the fear of doing a job that is hated or demeaning, of working long hours or doing a thankless task with no reward.
Relatedness: the fear of losing the sense of feeling safe with others.
Includes the fear of being judged, of not being appreciated for the efforts made, of dealing with difficult customers or clients, and of being subjected to violence or bullying.
Fairness: the fear of losing credibility or reputation.
Includes the fear of being wrong or failing, of not being respected, and of not performing well.
Stress is what happens when something disturbs your equilibrium, or causes a change to happen. Events that cause fear are very common sources of stress.
Stress is a well-documented issue at work, and has been for many years. Companies report on stress levels in their organisations as work-related sick days, and several government agencies provide national statistics and trends on stress levels and their causes on an annual basis.
The 2015 UK Labour Force Study gave the total number of stress cases during 2013-2014 in the UK workplace as 487,000 – about 40 per cent of the total of all work-related illnesses. These illnesses resulted in absenteeism, a higher rate of accidents, diminished productivity and higher turnover. Reviewing trends over the past decade, the report concluded that this level of work-related stress had remained broadly flat, meaning that in the past 10 years almost 5 million people had reported ill due to stress at work in UK. This survey, along with many others in countries all over the world, show that stress at work is significant and widespread, and has a major impact on the bottom line. People cannot do their best work when they feel stressed; businesses and economies suffer.
The UK study, in common with many other studies, identified the main stressors at work as work pressure, lack of managerial support and work-related violence and bullying, which, as the SCARF model shows, are all related to fear.
Neuroscience is now beginning to give us insights that allow us to identify the antidote to fear at work.
Research has shown that fear is one of the eight basic emotions that underpin all actions, thoughts and feelings. It is one of the five emotions related to ‘survival’ (the others being anger, disgust, shame and sadness). Because it is designed to help keep you safe from danger, fear is the one emotion that is most easily triggered.
Two of the eight basic emotions are related to ‘attachment’ – these are excitement/joy and trust/love. The eighth emotion is surprise, and it can take you either towards ‘survival’ or ‘attachment’ depending on the circumstance (surprise/horror or surprise/delight).
When trust/love is present at work, extraordinary things can happen. The brain is released from looking out for danger and can focus entirely on the job in hand. Productivity increases, as does efficiency. The leader easily galvanises the organisation into action to deliver the business.
When excitement/joy is in the workplace, people want to use their energy innovating and having fun. In combination with trust/love, truly remarkable innovation can happen, alongside growth and positive relationships.
Leaders need to recognise that triggering fear in people working in their organisations is very easily done, but that it is extremely corrosive, invariably destructive of both people and businesses. It leads to stress, costing companies money and time to deal with the damage done to employees. Companies with cultures based on fear are usually inefficient, non-competitive and uninventive.
It is so much better to base your organisation’s culture on trust/love, with a dose of excitement/joy. Then there is really no limit to what you can achieve.