Why we need to talk about fear in the workplace

The science of fear and how our organisations can do good instead of harm

This week I’m in Miami for WorldBlu’s The Power Question Summit. Last year, the summit centred around freedom at work. This time, the core theme is fear. WorldBlu founder Traci Fenton devised The Power Question process after a profound session she had with a mentor some years ago who asked her, ‘what would you do if you weren’t afraid?’ Since then, she has shared it with thousands of leaders and individuals around the world, inspiring them to confront their fears and embrace a freedom-centred mindset.

But what has fear got to do with business?

Organisations are doing more harm than good

CEO of Barry-Wehmiller Bob Chapman shared the slide below with statistics I think most of us are familiar with by now.

Bob Chapman making the case for a caring leadership culture in the workplace

The majority of employees around the world are disengaged or actively disengaged and stress is endemic in our work culture. Bob had an epiphany when he was at church one Sunday. Whereas his rector had the power to influence the congregation in just one hour a week, Bob as a business leader had the power to influence his employees in 40 hours a week. He had 40 times the potential influence on people’s lives!

What CEOs are afraid of

Traci reminded us of the Harvard Business Review research into what CEOs are afraid of. The top three fears were:

  1. Impostor syndrome
  2. Underachieving
  3. Appearing too vulnerable

We have up to 60,000 thoughts a day and apparently around 80% of those are negative. Our mindset affects our behaviour and if you’re a leader, your behaviour is disproportionately contagious. When you operate from a place of fear as a leader, you will undoubtedly be creating a climate of fear around you. Why is that a problem? Because fear limits performance.

Fear limits performance

Henri Hyppönen, author of Why We Fear, explained to us how the brain knows no difference between a perceived threat and an actual threat. Hundreds of thousands of years ago when we were running away from saber-tooth tigers this was very handy. In our relatively cushy lives today, it means your amygdala is triggered by situations like a boss raising his or her voice or a co-worker interrupting you in a meeting. The result? Your body is flooded with the stress hormone cortisol which shuts down your pre-frontal cortex, A.K.A your ability to think clearly, be creative or solve problems.

Henri Hyppönen sharing insights from his book Why We Fear

Henri talked about neuroception, our subconscious system for detecting threats and safety. Steve Jobs did a disservice to managers, he argued, because many interpreted the recipe for his success as instilling fear in his employees. In fact, many of the creatives at Apple did their best work without Steve present.

Fear can be a gift

But fear is also a delicious paradox. Whilst it’s limited as a motivator, confronting fear can be transformative. Talkshow host Kirsty Spraggon spent years interviewing people on her show about their secrets and helping them overcome shame until one day she realised she had been hiding a secret of her own for 18 years. She decided to face her fear in a bold way — on a global stage in this powerful TEDx talk.

She became an inspiring example for people all over the world who reached out to her to share the secrets they’d been keeping and describe the liberation they felt in finally letting them go. Kirsty realised that when you numb pain, you also numb joy. What’s more, she discovered that when you are willing to be vulnerable, connections deepen rather than weaken. That’s not to say that all of us should broadcast our secrets to the world but it’s worth considering: how could I strengthen relationships with my co-workers or loved ones by being vulnerable?

What does this mean in organisations?

Henri believes that a neuroception of safety should be the standard in every organisation. The brain knows no difference between social pain and actual pain. When you create a safe space for people, they are able to flourish. It’s not fluffy, it’s science.

We heard some great examples in the first half of the summit from leaders who are designing their organisations to be freedom-centred rather than fear-based. For example Garry Ridge, CEO of WD-40 Company, came up with the term ‘learning moments’ to replace the taboo word ‘mistakes’. This subtle language change makes all the difference because, as Garry explained, ‘you can only win or learn — there is no losing’. Finnish company Futurice respects its employees so deeply that each one is entrusted with a company credit card. And Matthew Gonnering, CEO of Widen, decided to ditch his fear of being a ‘real’ CEO. Now he asks employees ‘do I let you down?’ and just listens.

The strength in vulnerability

A key theme of the day was vulnerability. For too long it’s been viewed as a weakness but as Kirsty so beautifully put it: all the things that matter are on the other side of fear. But for this to happen, leaders need to role model vulnerability and we need to create work environments where people feel safe to be vulnerable.


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