How to Handle Fear at Work

UPDATED: November 27, 2017
PUBLISHED: November 27, 2017

I recently participated in a leadership retreat with 20 leaders of small to midsize organizations. At some point during the first day, the question of whether one should lead with fear became a topic of discussion. The reaction was unanimous: Leading with fear is a mistake, and fear has no place at work.

The following day brought a different discussion—this time about constructive feedback and sharing difficult news with team members. Most of the leaders described the apprehension they felt going into these conversations, and the stress they felt during them. There was ample discussion about aggressive, inflexible or entitled team members.

These leaders, who one day earlier had denounced fear in the work place, were afraid.

Related: 5 Ways to Overcome Your Most Common Fears About Work

Leadership based on fear should not be an aspiration. But don’t convince yourself that fear doesn’t live in your organization. And don’t believe that fear can be eliminated. You can minimize it, but it will never go away. Instead it takes different shapes and rests in shadows.

Your job is to know where fear lives and what to do when it emerges.

Recognize fear as a signal.

Based on the comments at the retreat, there was a general reluctance to push back on team members who consistently pushed back on them. Leaders are often afraid of being viewed as inflexible or unopen to new ideas. They hesitate to stand firm with equal force, even if the people pushing are on questionable footing.

You must give your team members voices, but that isn’t your only job. You must also determine if their points are valid. If you have a strong sense of how your organization needs to operate, and if what they are advocating for isn’t a good idea, then you can’t be afraid to hold your position.

That is why those moments of conflict are important. They communicate what you stand for. Those moments are when you must take responsibility for helping them understand why their perspectives aren’t aligned with yours. Fear of conflict is not something to eliminate. Rather recognize that feeling for what it is—a signal guiding you toward a conversation you need to have.

Shift the fear.

Fear is often discussed in the context of top-down leadership—hot tempered, dictatorial, condescending, etc. In most work environments, however, you are just as likely to find instances of team members behaving in a similar fashion. And when they do, their colleagues are noting how it is managed. Some leaders don’t confront bad behavior due to a misinterpretation of servant-leadership. They are afraid to use their structural power. But if they don’t, they will soon see a negative effect on the team and the culture.

If this description fits you, understand that structural power lets you shift fear, and sometimes that is needed. Remind yourself that you shouldn’t be the one afraid. The person exhibiting bad behavior should be afraid. Transfer the fear by telling them what the repercussions are if their behavior continues. Be direct, specific, and don’t mince words. It should be done in private, but the change in behavior will be seen in public. It isn’t a newfound respect for the organization that will shift their behavior. It’s shifting the fear from you to them.

Related: Why You Should Look Your Fears in the Eye and Smile

Share your fears.

Some leaders are afraid to upset their team members. Others are afraid to show any weakness at all. To hide imperfections or concerns, these leaders pretend to be fearless. They project the image that they are all-knowing, believing that will make people follow them.

It is problematic when leaders don’t share their fears with their followers. When leaders don’t acknowledge they need help, no one helps them. As a result, they feel isolated and misunderstood. This heightens the issue because eventually every leader stumbles. When they do, they will not only struggle managing the aftermath, their team won’t understand them nor what caused the problem.

Perfection doesn’t exist, and everyone knows it. If you try to portray perfect leadership, your team won’t fully believe in you. Don’t be afraid to show imperfection. It will help people see themselves in you and understand what you face. This in turn draws people to you. Leadership despite imperfection is a marvel that gains far more followership than feigned perfection.

Face fear together.

There exists a powerful, quiet fear that lives between peers. It stays hidden, but you need only mention “peer feedback” to raise the anxiety level of anyone in earshot. Suddenly fear is born.

Most people value feedback, but they also know relationships are important. To keep the peace, colleagues avoid giving each other feedback or they simply focus on positive feedback—neither of which drives improvement. Your job is to teach them that constructive feedback might not feel good, but it is good.

Role-model how to effectively receive feedback by having your team give you feedback in groups. Use that opportunity to demonstrate how to listen, absorb and adjust. Make feedback a normal part of any process in which employees are collaborating, not just performance reviews. If you have capacity, provide feedback training for your team. Giving feedback is hard. That fear doesn’t need to go away entirely. Teach your team that peer feedback is evidence of a colleague willing to face a fear for them. It will strengthen their relationships and the individuals on either side.

Fear is an emotion no different than sadness, joy or anger. Unless you want to rid your organization of feelings entirely, don’t presume you can rid it of fear. Too often, leaders try to make their environments free of fear and simply absorb it themselves. Too often, leaders deny its existence and then are surprised by the fruit it bears.

Your job is not to absorb fear, eliminate it, nor build upon it. Your job is to know the places from which fear is likely to emerge. Your job is to recognize its purpose. And when fear arrives, your job is to be prepared.

Related: How to Confront Your Fear-Based Thoughts

Chaka Booker is a managing director for The Broad Center, a national leadership development organization founded by Eli Broad. Chaka has more than a decade of experience recruiting, assessing and developing leaders. He earned bachelor’s degrees in economics and psychology from the University of California, Los Angeles, and an MBA from Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business. As an introvert, if he isn’t helping managers navigate the toughest challenges of their careers, he can’t be found. Connect with him on Twitter where he shares his views on leadership and social issues.