Feeling overwhelmed by fear at work? You're not alone.
I’ve always had an unhealthy relationship with fear at work. Even though I’ve been a relatively consistent high performer throughout my career, I recall the palpable shock of fear I felt anytime an HR business partner scheduled an unexpected meeting. Despite these meetings rarely being negative, the fear was real and ever-present. Or, one time, I convinced myself so soundly that I would be fired for booking a hotel that was $25 over the expense cap that I didn’t sleep for two nights. I’m certainly not alone in this – a recent survey suggests that almost 90% of employees suffer from work-related fears.
Fear in the workplace is a common yet often unspoken phenomenon. Most of us have felt the cold grip of fear at some point in our corporate journey: fear of judgment, fear of failure, and fear of losing our jobs (and their associated benefits). These fears can stem from a toxic manager or, in my case, from systemic issues within an organization and our society. They often act as powerful, albeit harmful, motivators.
Fear in the Workplace
In the right doses and in the right situations, fear can serve a useful and functional purpose. There’s an evolutionary reason fear exists within us to this day. Research shows that, in a business setting, fear can signal that something needs to be fixed and provide energy for a solution. That’s good!
But its overuse leads to rigidity, decreased creativity, and unhappiness. That’s bad! In fact, carrots and sticks often have undesirable effects as motivators – check out Daniel Pink’s book, Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, for a fascinating summary of the research supporting this idea.
In my experience, fear was never wielded intentionally by superiors, but it was a byproduct of our corporate culture. An ever-present reminder to work hard and toe the company line – everyone and anyone is replaceable. It’s exhausting and, frankly, not very fun.
Fear as a motivator is like refined sugar as a energy source for our bodies. It’s great for a quick boost, but as a steady diet, it can kill us.
Intersections of Identity and Workplace Fear
While workplace fear affects everyone, marginalized groups face unique challenges. Their experiences intersect with systemic biases, microaggressions, and a lack of representation, creating a more complex and often more intense relationship with fear.
Specifically, marginalized groups are more likely to face:
Increased scrutiny and judgment: Marginalized individuals, whether based on race, gender, sexual orientation, disability, or other factors, may feel like they're under constant surveillance. This hyper-awareness of potential bias is exhausting and can lead to fear of making mistakes, expressing themselves authentically, or even simply existing in the workplace.
Microaggressions and discrimination: Discriminatory behavior comes in all shapes and sizes, and it erodes feelings of safety and belonging. A racist "joke" or a sexist comment creates a hostile work environment and can leave the affected individuals feeling isolated and vulnerable.
Lack of representation and role models: Seeing few or no individuals like themselves in leadership positions can foster feelings of self-doubt and fear of advancement. This lack of representation makes it harder for marginalized individuals to see themselves succeeding in the long term.
Concerns about retaliation: Speaking up about concerns or reporting instances of discrimination or harassment can be daunting for marginalized individuals, who may fear negative repercussions or further marginalization. This silence can perpetuate harmful dynamics and leave fear unchecked.
This is a very deep and very complex problem. But, by understanding the unique challenges marginalized groups face, and by taking steps to address them, we move towards a work environment where everyone feels safe, valued, and empowered.
Strategies for Navigating Fear in the Workplace
While we’d love to simply eliminate fear from the workplace, the reality is that, for better or worse, it’s here to stay. So, instead, here are six strategies to help you manage and even harness workplace fear.
Take a Deep Dive Into Your Brain: We’re Starling, so it’s no surprise that we’ll start by advocating for spending some time getting to know yourself. Get clear on your source of fear. Are your fears external, such as making sure you or your family can meet your basic needs in terms of income and/or benefits? Or are your fears more internal, such as a fear of failure, fear of being seen as not valuable, or fear of conflict? More than likely, it’s a combination of both external and internal factors, but getting clarity on our fears (and this can be uncomfortable) can help us understand which situations are likely to trigger a fear response and help us better manage those situations.
Get Curious: Curiosity is a superpower for helping us break habit loops, including fear-based ones. Next time you start to feel the familiar tension of fear rising within you, try meeting it with pure curiosity (I mean real pure… Dr. Judson Brewer, in his book Unwinding Anxiety, literally encourages us to say, “Hmmm,” out loud). Explore what you’re feeling physically, where you feel, and how it makes you feel.
Build Your Shadow Network: Rachel Koblic introduced me to the term “shadow network”, and here at Starling, we encourage everyone to invest in their very own shadow network. What the heck is a shadow network? It’s a group of folks from across your organization whom you meet or chat with regularly, even though you may not have any business reason to. They likely work on other teams or other departments, and they may be peers, leaders, ICs, or anything in between. The key element is that you and your shadow network are allies. You support each other, validate (or invalidate) each other as needed, speak honestly with each other, build each other’s reputations, offer advice as appropriate, and are a shoulder to lean on. A shadow network provides a sense of security and belonging that can be invaluable when fear rises.
Get Vulnerable: This one is tough and requires strong psychological safety between you, your manager, and your team. In most of my work experience, I’ve been fortunate enough to work for managers who have been open to hearing me talk about my fears and how they manifest in the workplace. Not everyone has this luxury, but if you do, talking to your manager and/or your team can help alleviate fears and also allow for the possibility of finding solutions collaboratively.
Focus on Learning and Growth: This one probably also shouldn’t be surprising coming from Starling, but we highly encourage you to develop a growth mindset and pursue lifelong learning. Just as regular exercise helps you reduce the risk of health problems, continuous learning in terms of professional development helps you reduce the risk of some of your workplace fears becoming reality. (P.S. If you’re interested in joining a learning community that can help you with this, we know a place 🙂).
Seek Feedback Sometimes, we get stuck in our own heads. Regular feedback from managers, peers, and direct reports can provide clarity, reassurance, and opportunities for course correction.
While fear in the workplace is a reality many of us face, it doesn't have to dictate our professional journey. By understanding the roots of our fears, fostering curiosity, building supportive networks, embracing vulnerability, and focusing on continuous learning and growth, we can navigate and even harness these fears to our advantage.
Here at Starling, we have courses and resources designed to help you develop a holistic approach to managing fear at work (and so much more). If that’s of interest to you, consider joining our community!