Copyright 2000 W. Jan Austin, Corporate Coach and President of Potential At Work, Inc. All rights reserved.

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Fear, at a basic physiological level, is the perception (thought or assumption) that an external threat to one’s well being exists.  This in turn mobilizes the body’s “fight or flight” mechanism.  The body’s fight or flight response is activated by the production of large amounts of the hormone adrenaline (the body’s stress hormone).  When experiencing a fear response, people are naturally more likely to exhibit defensive or aggressive behavior.



The symptoms of people experiencing fear responses may be subtle or extreme, and they may manifest themselves at all levels of the organization.  Some common symptoms include:

§         “Us versus them” talk

§         Silence during meetings, but widespread talk outside of meetings

§         Political behavior

§         Rigid interpretation of policies, procedures, and standards

§         Widespread poor morale

§         Resignation, wish for retirement or layoff

§         Resistance to new ideas

§         Competitiveness among employees, management

§         Grievances against co-workers or management

§         External complaints to the media, lawsuits.

§         Overactive rumor mill

§         Lack of input or suggestions for improving working conditions

§         Lowered productivity, increased mistakes/waste

§         Increased absences and tardiness

§         Strained co-worker and/or supervisory relationships

§         Defensiveness regarding performance appraisal

§         Reluctance to admit mistakes

§         Tendency to blame the environment or others for a host of issues

§         Negative attitudes regarding the organization and/or its customers

§         Indecisiveness or reluctance to take risks

§         Over-emphasis on “writing people up”

§         Denial of tensions and conflicts which are at or near the surface

§         Important issues are rendered “undiscussable”

§         Pattern of reprisals or what look like reprisals against those who speak up

§         Statements indicative of mistrust of upper management by employees

§         Statements indicative of mistrust of employees by upper management

§         Over-management of simple decisions and of people


Both employees and management experience fear in a fear-based organization.  Each group sees the other as having a great deal of power to control outcomes which may affect people within the other group profoundly. Employees and managers fear similar things, all having to do with loss.  They fear the loss of: 

§         Credibility

§         Self esteem

§         Inclusion

§         Relationships

§         Current role

§         The job itself

§         Future opportunity

§         Control over one’s work and one’s destiny

§         Ability to predict events in the work environment



The sources of fear are often assumptions, which can be exaggerated or distorted, and which may be conscious or unconscious, about the intentions, integrity, judgment or competency of those in the other group. These assumptions affect people’s judgments and interactions, sometimes profoundly.


Assumptions which managers may have about employees:

§         They don’t care about their work; they just want a paycheck

§         They can’t see the big picture

§         They have no appreciation for costs

§         They can’t think for themselves; they need a manager to solve problems

§         They lack the experience or perspective to make decisions beyond their immediate sphere of responsibility

§         They need “hands on” management to prevent mistakes

§         They don’t have an appreciation for the need for systems and procedures

§         They think they’re entitled

§         They lack the ability to judge management


Assumptions which employees may have about managers:

§         They don’t care about us; they just want a promotion or more power

§         They don’t have any idea what it’s like here in the trenches

§         They want us to work harder and harder without the benefit of resources

§         They’re secretive

§         They don’t consider us personally or our families or our futures when they make decisions

§         They think they’re better than the rest of us

§         They are biased in their views of employees; they play favorites

§         They care more about the customer or the stockholder than employees

§         They want all the credit

§         They lack the ability to lead others


Behaviors which Trigger Fear Responses

Behaviors in organizational leaders and employees which can trigger the development of negative assumptions, which can in turn trigger  fear responses include:

§         Interpersonal coldness or abruptness

§         Rude or patronizing behavior

§         Insufficient or careless communication

§         Dismissal or minimization of diverse points of view

§         Delay or total neglect in responding to suggestions

§         Public criticism or ridicule

§         Emotional outbursts

§         Secretive communications

§         Gossip or other means of indirect communication

§         Withholding of important information

§         Staring or other aggressive forms of body language

§         Communication style which is inflexible to the styles of others

§         Failure to provide truthful information

§         Unwillingness to share personal information and experiences

§         Failure to give credit to others




Eliminating fear begins with leaders acknowledging their own responsibility for creating and/or participating in a fear-driven organizational culture.  By examining their assumptions and behaviors which have either triggered or perpetuated defensive, fearful responses in others, and consciously choosing to communicate in a more positive, proactive manner, they can interrupt the patterns of fear and the associated defensive routines in the organization.  Leaders can take a number of steps to engage organizational constituents in more open, collaborative conversations and encourage greater positive participation in the work of the organization.  Leaders can do this by employing simple but powerful facilitation skills. 


Establishing Rapport

Organizational leaders must commit to establishing rapport with others in the organization.  Rapport is essential to a process of which eliminates fear and supports positive communication, growth and change.  The elements of rapport which leaders must foster are:


·        Mutual respect: this includes respect for both similarities and differences in communication and work style, as well as for divergent points of view


·        Open body language: body language which telegraphs acceptance, openness and trust


·        Willingness to be influenced: this means setting one’s own agenda aside in order to be open to the possibilities which may be discovered in collaboration with others


·        Safety to share personal vulnerabilities:  Safety must be modeled.  If the leader demonstrates a willingness to share his/her own experiences, including mistakes, others will feel more safe to do so


·        Minimization of differences in power and status:  meeting with employees in their work areas, dressing to match others’ typical attire, greeting others warmly and by first name are some examples of ways to minimize these differences


·        Demonstration of  interest in the success of others: this includes encouraging others to set bigger goals for themselves, assisting them in identifying and accessing resources to promote their success, and acknowledging progress


·        Empathy:  for others’ challenges, fears, personal obstacles.  Empathy can be demonstrated through inviting conversation as well as sharing one’s personal experiences.


·        Absence of posturing and defensiveness:  The leader who remains calm and open to others’ expression of strong emotion and voicing of issues, even though he/she recognizes them to have distortions, can interrupt the posturing and defensiveness (both symptoms of fear) in others.


·        Concern for others’ well being and that of their families: leaders must demonstrate that they value the importance of people’s personal and family lives as much as they do the workplace.  Decisions about work schedules, holidays, and other work/life issues must include consideration of personal/family needs.


·        Positive intention to bring one’s best self to interactions with others: when the leader comes to interactions with others with the full intention to be and do his or her best, others will feel respected and encouraged to be and do their best.


·        Space to see, hear and say the truth:  the leader must be willing to hear the views of others, even when those views may include criticism of the leader’s own attitudes and behaviors.  The leader can bolster rapport by demonstrating personal responsibility (telling the truth) about his or her performance.


·        Suspension of judgment:  suspension of limiting assumptions and attitudes is critical to open, trust-based communication.


·        Unconditionally constructive communication:  even feedback which is critical of performance or bad news can and must be delivered in a constructive way.  This means always communicating in a way that elevates individuals and assumes their best intentions, even when criticizing their performance.


Improving Listening Skills

Another skill leaders can employ to eliminate fear in the workplace is that of listening.  Leaders are often in the position of doing the majority of the talking in their interactions with employees in the organization.  Consciously choosing to shift from the “tell” mode to the “listening” mode can have a powerful positive effect on fear.


·        Resolve to be a better listener:  This moves the leader beyond awareness of the need to be a better listener to a new level—that of commitment.  Without full commitment, behavior change is not possible.


·        Tell others of the intent:  Telling others of one’s overall intent as well as what aspects of listening he/she is committed to improving accomplishes two things.  It strengthens one’s personal commitment, and it raises others’ awareness of both the intent and the specific areas to be improved.  Others are likely to be more tolerant of mistakes when they know something is being worked on, and they are also more likely to share their observations and feedback in a helpful, developmental way.


·        Create a listening space:  Eliminate obstacles, distractions, or attitudes which get in the way of listening, such as physical separateness, overbooked schedule, physical or emotional fatigue, and critical attitudes or judgments.  Identifying what gets in the way may require the help of a coach or other supportive person, and is absolutely essential to the process of becoming an excellent listener.


·        Eliminate environmental distractions and interruptions:  This means going beyond creating space within oneself to ensuring that the immediate environment is conducive to being able to be fully present with someone else.  Extraneous noise, clutter and interruptions by others need to be eliminated to provide the best “listening space.”


·        Establish or confirm that rapport is present:  Even if rapport has been established in the past, it cannot be assumed in the present.  Rapport is really situation specific, and it can be interrupted or negated during an interchange at any time.  Good listening is enhanced by rapport. 


·        Set aside assumptions and analysis:  This involves having an open mind about the speaker and the message. It is also important to suspend the tendency to evaluate or analyze the content of the message while the message is being delivered.  Going into an analytical mode interrupts good listening.


·        Monitor body language:  The good listener monitors his/her own body language to ensure that it telegraphs openness, acceptance of the speaker and the message without judgment.


·        Listen for the whole message:  This means listening for not only what is said, but also what is implied by the speaker’s message, what does his/her body language reveal about his or her underlying feelings, and what is the request behind the message.


·        Check for complete understanding:  The good listener does this by asking clarifying questions or by paraphrasing what he or she understands the speaker to have said.


·        Ask for feedback:  The leader may think he or she is doing an excellent job of listening, but this needs to be confirmed by asking for feedback.  People are generally able to be quite clear about whether or not they felt fully listened to. 



Asking Questions Which Increase Trust and Reduce Fear

Organizational leaders can make significant strides in eliminating fear and increasing trust by committing to a process of mutual discovery of possibility and potential.  To do so means learning to ask great questions of others.  Great questions always elevate and never diminish others.


·        Clarifying Questions:  Questions which elucidate the current situation, problem, need, challenge or goal or which reveal personal feelings, concerns, questions, or anxieties, such as “What do the performance data reveal about our current situation?”, “What market trends should we be addressing right now?”, “What is your personal feeling about this?”


·        Discovery Questions:  Questions designed to promote self discovery , such as “What’s new or different?”, “What’s missing?”, “What’s the current reality?”, “What’s the unspoken truth?”, “What’s possible?”, “Where are the gaps in knowledge, skills, relationships, attitudes and behaviors?”, “What are the unintended results of present attitudes and behaviors?”


·        Questions about Vision and Strategy:  questions such as “What is the individual’s or team’s vision which can be aligned with that of the organization?”,  “What are the possible strategies to meet the current business challenge?”, “How has our past strategy been/not been effective?”, “What is the next level for us?”, “If you could design a response with no constraints whatsoever, what would it be?”


·        Open Ended Questions: Questions that invite participation, disclosure and commitment, such as “Tell me more about…”, “How does this situation, problem, opportunity seem to you?”, “What do you think we should do next?”


·        Evocative Questions:  Questions that seize upon the inherent opportunity available now, foster a search for shared meaning, or create a new or changed context, such as “What is the opportunity underlying this challenge?”, “What are we not doing/paying attention to that would altogether shift this situation?”, “What are we not talking about that we should be talking about to solve this problem/seize this opportunity?”, “If we were to take a radically different approach to this, what would it be?”, “If all constraints were removed, what courses of action would be available to you or the team?”


·        Questions to Gauge Awareness/Understanding:  Questions which reveal an individual’s or team’s understanding of current reality, challenges which lie ahead, as well as current performance strengths and gaps, such as “What is your perception of the current situation?”, “What do you see as the biggest challenge?”, “What will it take to address the challenge?”, “What are our performance strengths?”, “Where are the gaps in skills, attitudes or behaviors?”


·        Forwarding Action Questions:  Questions which move the individual or team into forward action, such as “What steps are necessary to move the project forward?”, What steps will you or the team assume responsibility for”, “What is the best way to bridge the current gap?”, “Who else needs to be involved to ensure the project’s success?”, “What obstacles to success need to be eliminated?”


·        Support Questions:  Questions which inform the leader what he or she can do or cause to happen which increases the likelihood of success, such as “What would make the biggest impact and help to ensure your success?”, “What resources are you missing that would make a difference?”, “Do you need help with making networking contacts?”


·        Questions to Determine Readiness, Motivation and Commitment:  Questions which reveal the current state of “GO” as well as any obstacles which still need to be overcome, such as “Are you ready?”, “When will you be ready?”, “How committed are you to the project?”, “How optimistic are you about the outcome?”, “What possibilities are you most excited about?”, “What’s holding you back now?”, “What’s your uncertainty about, and how could we turn that into readiness?”


·        Questions about Standards:  Questions which are designed to build a shared understanding of and commitment to standards, such as “What are your personal standards for this project?”, “Are they high enough given the current business environment?”, “How do our standards compare with the competition?”, “How will we get everyone’s full effort to maintain or exceed these standards?”, “How will performance against standards be measured?”


Promoting Dialogue

Dialogue may be defined as a synergistic conversation in which participants give and receive without attachment or personal agenda, and from which results an outcome not possible without the participation of everyone in the group. When dialogue is present, fear is absent.  Leaders who are committed to dialogue can create a significant organizational cultural shift from fear to positive engagement.  Strategies they can employ to promote dialogue include:


·        Practice being more emotionally expressive: leaders do this when they reveal what they feel, value and care about, and evidence their desire to know others in the same way.  (being authentic is probably the single most important thing a leader can do to encourage dialogue)


·        Acknowledge own mistakes:  This is a big step for some leaders, but is invaluable to fostering a feeling of safety and permission to risk in others


·        Acknowledge the diversity of people, opinions, skills and experience: and make explicit the value of differences to the organization’s success


·        Be extremely visible and have many one to one conversations with people:  People are highly unlikely to fully express themselves with people they do not know and trust.  Senior managers are often the least known and trusted because they tend to be so isolated from others in the organization, and this is reinforced by the traditional vertical organizational “structures”


·        Clarify the ultimate purpose or goal of the discussion and why the input of all participants is central to the overall outcome:  dialogue results in a different and often superior outcome than is possible when people act alone.  The leader who makes it clear that the goal is bigger than any one individual creates a positive environment for dialogue.


·        Determine what each individual wants to give and to get from the process:  establish that each individual has an investment in the process and is willing to engage in dialogue.


·        Acknowledge each individual’s unique skills, experience and perspective:  people naturally want to contribute more when they are recognized for their uniqueness and their importance to the group.


·        Make the ground rules for communication explicit:  Typical among them are :


ü      Adopt a learning attitude

ü      Be willing to listen and be influenced

ü      Fully express feelings, thoughts, opinions, then invite input

ü      Demonstrate respect for the feelings, thoughts, opinions of others

ü      Embrace consensus as preferable to individual “wins”

ü      Be willing to explore and test areas of disagreement to find common ground

ü      Develop shared understanding of key vocabulary


·        Establish the normalcy of conflict and disagreement:  the leader can promote dialogue by creating the expectation that conflict and disagreement are natural occurrences and are in fact essential elements in developing a shared understanding of a problem or challenge.  The leader must also ensure that focus, direction and forward movement are maintained to prevent conflict from immobilizing participants.