Diminishing Fear in the Workplace

Today, it seems that we are living in a world filled with uncertainty. Change is constant, and predictions of doom and gloom prevail. Confusion or uncertainty about the future can lead to feelings of anxiety and fear both in our lives and on the job. How can we manage fear? Does it transfer to the workplace? Is it reflective of a culture gone sour? Should leaders pay attention to fear?

According to psychologists, there is no such thing as “healthy” fear. Fear robs people of their potential and is a barrier to individual and organizational performance. Fear-based outcomes are usually negative and in most cases affect both organizational and individual quality of life.

Managing fear in the workplace is important and leaders can influence the level of fear in their departments or organizations through effective management techniques.

How can we recognize fear in the workplace?

Is your workplace highly competitive?
In a highly competitive work environment fear is easy to see. Competition between employees or departments creates anxiety, destroying trust and setting off a chain reaction of negative behaviours that can have a negative effect on the total culture of the organization. In a highly competitive organizational culture, people tend to focus on eliminating threats instead of working to achieve desired outcomes and they are more likely to avoid reprisal, perhaps at the expense of others.

Is short-term thinking the standard mode of operation in your department or organization?
Short-term thinking is usually apparent when there is a high degree of emphasis on monthly or quarterly results. Everyone is so focused on delivering the short term goal that there is no time left for long range planning. Eventually, people lose their sense of higher purpose and management fails to provide resources for long range needs. The focus on short-term profitability robs their efforts to develop a plan to become competitive, to stay in business and to provide jobs.

Oftentimes, employees juggle data to avoid repercussion from management and so the numbers do not tell the full story. According to quality consultant, William Scherkenbach, “With a combination of fear and ignorance people can virtually bring any process into statistical control.”

Quality guru, Edward Deming refers to eliminating fear as one of his 14 principles of quality management. Deming’s methods helped Japan to move from a world perception as a producer of cheap, shoddy imitations post World War II to one of producing innovative quality products.

He said, “Encourage effective two way communication and other means to drive out fear throughout the organization so that everybody may work effectively and more productively for the company.” Therefore eliminating fear is essential to initiating and sustaining a total quality effort, pursuing continuous improvement, encouraging innovation and achieving customer delight. Deming suggests that standards prescribing quotas or numerical goals for people in management should be replaced with aids and helpful leadership to achieve continual improvement of quality and productivity.

How can we manage fear?

Individually, the most important way to manage fear is to acknowledge that it exists. As well, it is important to manage fear by:

  • Establishing clear expectations—being clear on what your peers or staff expect of you.
  • Assessing fear—that is, identifying what you or your team is fearful of and how it affects good performance.
  • Clarifying perceptions—do you feel that people on the job have to do things that are against their better judgement?
  • Defining the level of trust—do you feel that your peers, staff or suppliers are trustworthy? Do they trust you?
    Communication—do you feel that your staff members have all the information needed to carry out their jobs? Is feedback being collected among peers, employees and management?
  • Training—is individual development and advancement supported by management? Are you, your peers and staff fully qualified for their jobs? If not, what have you done to ensure that your peers or staff acquire new knowledge and develop new skills?

An environment which helps people cope with fear must include leadership, trust and vision:


The job of a leader in managing fear is to create an environment where employees can share information without concern for repercussions. Find out what generates fear in the organization. Listen and observe for signs of fear and take the lead on speaking up about fear. When people do speak up, a leader who manages fear effectively will be patient and understanding. The leader will listen, paraphrase and collect data before passing judgement on employees’ suggestions and actions.

Leaders must also respond to employees’ concerns and ideas quickly. Lack of response sends the message that nothing here will change. As well, leaders must reward cooperation and innovation and reward efforts as well as outcomes.


Creating trust is not easy—it can take years to build and just one act to destroy. But trust is needed for cooperation and communication to exist between people. Trust improves and encourages communication while low trust leads to uncertainty and defensiveness. As a manager, if you do not hear bad news, this may be a sign of fear in the workplace. In the spirit of building trust, managers must share their mistakes with others as a signal that mistakes are considered opportunities for learning.

Clear Sense of Purpose and Vision

Taking the attention off the fear and refocusing it on purpose or goal destroys fear’s paralyzing effects. Therefore having a clear organizational vision can serve as a “fear buster” because it provides constancy of purpose. Like a lighthouse, a vision statement provides direction so everyone understands where the organization is going and what they are striving to achieve. There are no examples of organization-wide cultural changes that minimized fear from the bottom of the organization. This is because only top management can establish the vision and establish the core values for an organization. By virtue of this power, leaders have an obligation to communicate their efforts, lead by example and build some success stories so others are willing and able to join them.


Whether an organization grows or downsizes, succeeds or fails, new fears will surface. Therefore, leaders must be proactive in dealing with them. The benefits of managing fear are both personal and organizational. Those organizations that manage fear successfully experience lower turnover, lower absenteeism, fewer grievances filed and better communication and coordination both inside and outside the organization. Employees spend less time on defending against real and perceived threats and more time on improving processes and innovation.

Sally Stanleigh

Sally Stanleigh is a senior partner in Business Improvement Architects and the Chief Operating Officer. Sally manages the operation and develops and implements communications, marketing and promotion programs. She is also responsible for spearheading and managing the company's corporate research projects. Sally has a background in marketing and communications and previously worked as a senior product manager with multi-national corporations such as Colgate-Palmolive and Phillip Morris before founding Business Improvement Architects with her husband and partner, Michael Stanleigh.

On occasion, Sally is asked by clients for help with business planning. She facilitates the planning process as a consultant and helps clients with the development of their marketing plans and programs. She has also presented to professional groups on such topics as: customer feedback systems, employee motivation, development of incentive programs and trends.

You may contact her at sstanleigh@bia.ca.