Fear in your workplace is killing performance


Despite all my efforts, Grace remains a fearful dog. Some of her fear is related to her disposition, but part is caused by mistakes I made in our early days, when I thought I was offering a safe environment, but I wasn’t. Over time, I continue to learn ways to help her handle her deep insecurities, but I’ve learned that my good intentions aren’t always the right thing for her. What may have worked for another dog doesn’t necessarily work with Grace. And that’s something for managers to remember, too. What works for one employee may not necessarily work with another.

Managers can be oblivious to the fear that employees face in the workplace. Is there fear in your organization? Are you indeed even creating it?

It’s a deeper issue than what one might quickly assign to obvious root causes, such as layoffs in financially struggling companies, performance issues, or extreme friction between a manager and an employee.

But the more subtle cases of fear can be debilitating — a silent killer for an organization’s performance.

You might not see it immediately. In fact, things could look rosy, such congenial teams and people breezing through meeting agendas without much detail as if all is under control. 

But what if the people sitting around the table aren’t able, or willing, to raise the important issue that are facing? Fear can be real, or imagined, but if anyone has it, issues can’t be addressed and that will kill any kind of exceptional work.

Grace worries a lot. And I mean a lot. Even when she sleeps, I think the poor dog worries. You can see one eye half-way peering out, making sure that some unknown attacker is not coming around to get here. After eight years of living in a (somewhat) sane household, wouldn’t you think she’d relax a little?

Her fear keeps her on edge and prevents her from enjoying some of the simple ‘normal dog’ pleasures, such as playing with friendly kids or accepting a belly rub from a friendly visitor. Nope, she’ll have none of that. Too scary.

Employees shut down, too. Why would someone put themselves at risk if they know (or even think) they are going to experience undesirable ramifications? It’s easier to put your head down, act as if all is fine, get through the meeting as fast as possible, and fly beneath the radar of trouble.

What are things that you, as a manager, may be doing to create fear? Here are some possibilities:

  • Being hostile or degrading when an employee presents any information that is contrary to your own opinion
  • Talking about others negatively in front of others; if you’re doing it to others, the listener will know the tables could turn on them, too)
  • Never asking for input or ideas (depending on other circumstances, this may not be enough to infer fear, but it certainly doesn’t help open up communication). Knowing your leadership style and the style of others will help you communicate better.
  • Punishing someone publicly for a  mistake with a joke or amusing comment

It’s not easy to erase a feeling of fear once it is felt. That’s why it’s important to address it early and often. And the only way to combat fear is on-going, honest communication. If two people are able to share what they are really dealing with to each other, fear does not exist.

So ask yourself this question: “Can I share anything I need to with my manager?” and “Can my employees share anything they need to with me?” Even if you answered ‘of course they can’ to the last question, you need to be sure. Test it out by talking to your team, individually and together. If you receive silence, you have a problem.

Fear isn’t always openly visible. Don’t miss the signs by thinking everyone is happy when they are dealing with fear instead. Don’t be afraid to reach out and talk about this. It’s a topic worth dealing with.


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