Many leaders recognise that fear has become an unwelcome norm in the workplace but are unsure of how to deal with it, whilst other leaders continue to propagate fear at a time when many of us are increasingly stressed, burned out, financially struggling, worried about global issues and feeling more vulnerable. 

If you dread the working week ahead; you’re not alone. LiveCareer reported that their study of over 1,000 people in the US showed 87% suffer from work-related fears.

Work-related fears may vary from cyberphobia (fear of computers) to job security uncertainty. Today there are concerns of being replaced by AI, or younger tech-savvy generations, or indeed just because one is perceived as being too old (typically over 50!). Fear of risk of failure, embarrassment and not meeting (often unrealistic) targets are common and for many, it’s a case of fear of losing our job.

Fear may take hold as a result of judgment or a particular colleague’s microaggressions, exclusion, unhealthy power hierarchies, as well as overt harassment or conflict. Public speaking (glossophobia) is thought to be a debilitating fear amongst 15% of Britons according to YouGov.

How is fear being propagated by poor leadership?

A global study of 2,200 emerging leaders conducted by Margot Faraci found that 23% of UK leaders are leading with fear.  The study found that fear-based leaders believe themselves to be confident, ambitious and intuitive and use fear to drive performance and feel pressure is motivating.

Leaders can propagate fear unconsciously as well as in a purely intentional way.  Inadequate leadership practices and poor communication from superiors can cause uncertainty and fear, leaving employees dealing with ambiguity regarding their roles, responsibilities, and the overall direction of the company. Failure to provide constructive feedback, clear expectations, and relay information is a problem for many organisations.

Leaders who exhibit domineering and authoritarian leadership styles cause employees to be fearful of contributing, suggesting improvements or voicing concerns.  When leaders don’t act on bullying behaviours or interpersonal conflicts within their teams, they are allowing victimisation, fear of retaliation and emotional suffering leading to a persisting hostile or uncomfortable environment which undermines both individual and collective success.

Ironically fear-based leaders‘ behaviour is often actually rooted in a lack of confidence, and the pressures on them to deliver short-term improvements and results just exacerbate the situation. Being a CEO is never an easy job and they do their best but if only they opened themselves up to support, they might find there was a better, and more productive approach.

The consequences of fear at work

Fear strangles employee morale, motivation, enthusiasm, engagement, innovation, productivity and creativity. By making us feel anxious or dread, leaders who propagate fear also make us feel insecure, stressed and scared to speak up affecting our career advancement and collaboration. Diversity and inclusion can be stifled by fear.

Fearful employees are unlikely to fulfil their potential which may decrease job satisfaction and affect physical and mental health. Individuals become preoccupied with perceived threats rather than their work. Beyond the individual, fear can create a toxic, dysfunctional working environment, impacting the overall health and resilience of the organisation and harming its reputation.

How to Address and Mitigate Fear:

Deep, independent analysis of the culture

Problems are rarely down to one individual. If the culture allows it, the problem is likely to be systemic.  Are all team members included and valued and is this being measured?  Wilful blindness doesn’t help at an individual or a business level and ultimately means you are complicit in allowing fear-inducing behaviours.

Address undesirable behaviours promptly

Worryingly, Gartner says nearly 60% of workplace misconduct is not reported.  Leaders need to create and enforce a zero-tolerance policy for any type of bullying, harassment, gaslighting, harmful gossip or extended conflict, and in order to do that, they have to be sufficiently aware of their own impact on the business.  Any instance of inappropriate behaviour must be quickly addressed to foster a safe space for employees. Employees experiencing toxicity in the workplace will feel more confident to speak up if they think something will be done about it and they are protected.  There needs to be a genuine whistleblower procedure.

Show transparency

Encourage open communication across the whole organisation, be a good role model with your own communication style and share relevant information about company goals, changes and expectations. Transparent communication reduces uncertainty, misinformation and gossip and helps to combat fear.

Develop channels for employees to have their say, express concerns, feedback and share ideas

Regular reviews and anonymous surveys allow employees to share without risk to their positions. Always actively listen and address any issue raised to promote trust, lessen anxiety, and make employees feel more comfortable sharing worries and issues. Take note of what is reflected on Glassdoor – you may not like it or believe it, but others will.

Focus On Inclusivity

Marginalised and diverse communities are more likely to experience fear. A study conducted by Catalyst found 68% of people of colour feel they need to be on guard to protect themselves from bias at work. Challenge stereotypes and bias and implement policies to create a culture in which employees from underrepresented groups feel accepted.

Invest In Leadership Development

Gallup found 70% of variance in team engagement is determined solely by the manager. Provide leadership courses that equip leaders with transparency, fairness and empathy skills. Train them to be excellent coaches, strong collaborators and deep listeners who prioritise well-being, purpose, values and development. Good role models are essential for a thriving, positive and sustainable work environment.

Allow all employee’s voices

This means ensuring that employees’ values, thoughts and opinions are welcomed, heard and incorporated so they feel recognised as stakeholders who can positively influence how things are done.  ‘Showing who is boss’, shouting over everyone else and making unilateral decisions create the perfect breeding ground for toxic overgrowth.

Psychological safety as a shared belief

An increasingly commonly used phrase but a vital one, psychological safety means that even if it is uncomfortable, members of a team know it is acceptable to take considered risks, to express their ideas, thoughts and concerns, to ask questions and to admit mistakes — all without fear of negative consequences.

Introduce Executive Coaching

Being a CEO is a really difficult and pressured job. It can also be a very lonely one, so having a coach, a professional who is not invested in the outcome except for the client to be more effective, is likely to reduce the pressure, enable him or her to lead more effectively while reducing fear and demotivation. Organisations thrive when people thrive!

Serenity in Leadership specialises in individual and team development and is currently running a subsidised coaching programme.

Find out more about our upcoming webinar here.

Thom Dennis
CEO and Founder at Serenity In Leadership | Website | + posts

With an MSc in Change Agent Skills & Strategies, expertise as a Certified Facilitator accredited by the CQ® Center, and an NLP Master Practitioner, 17 years’ experience as an officer in the Royal Marines and having worked extensively around the world, Thom brings all his experience together as a facilitator, speaker, consultant, educator and change agent as CEO of Serenity in Leadership. Thom is passionate about resolving the breadth of issues around good leadership and strives to bring healing and renewal in the face of dysfunction in the workplace.