Why fear could be holding you back at work


Fear. It is such a primal, automatic, instinctive emotion. Evolutionary psychologists theorise that over the millennia we have genetically bred this fear instinct as natural selection favoured those who better sensed potential danger - they were more likely to survive in the perilous environment they lived in. The more likely you are to be cautious, the less likely you are to take unnecessary risks and stay alive.

So essential is this fear function that is has its own physical space buried deep in the centre of our brain, an almond-sized capsule called the amygdala. It is this small, well-protected part of the brain that sends chemicals pumping through our body when we walk through a dark, creepy house or makes us anxious when we get too close to the edge of a cliff. It is our natural alarm system, warning us of danger and keeping us safe.

As our knowledge and understanding evolved, so did our technology, and we set up systems and environments that do a very good job of keeping us safe. In a way, we outsourced the job to make our lives more comfortable and predictable.

why fear could be holding you back at work

As a result, we can now operate with a much larger risk appetite and still survive. We can jump off cliffs, travel at break-neck speeds, live in previously uninhabitable spaces, and get up close and personal with dangerous predators, as long as we have the right human-made inventions to keep us safe.

In fact, for many people, staring fear in the face and performing death-defying acts actually feels amazing, with adrenalin and dopamine flooding the brain, creating what we know as adrenalin junkies. We no longer live in the jungle fending off all manner of predators day and night, meaning our fear mechanism is no longer purpose-built for the environment we find ourselves in.

Because of this, people struggle to find the balance between carefree and vigilance, tending to be either too risk averse or too risk seeking. We see evidence of this with the range of anxiety disorders and fear-based phobias that have emerged in society, undermining our pursuit of a happy and healthy life.

We also see evidence of this when examining people's behaviour at work. We approach any sort of change as threatening, we avoid difficult conversations and struggle to take on constructive feedback, we play office politics and don't ask for better conditions or pay when we know we should. Fear also stops us from changing careers or positions, preferring to stay with the "devil we know", rather than chance a more meaningful life elsewhere.

Primarily, we are scared of losing things, ways of doing things or relationships. Basically, any type of change. Our brains see change as dangerous and painful.

And pain isn't just physical pain; it is also mental anguish, or anything that creates more effort or work. While fear obviously still plays a role in keeping us safe, in my experience there are six major ways fear stops us reaching our potential.

1. We fear conflict.

We actively work to avoid difficult conversations because of the time and effort required in managing the lead-up to the conversation, the actual conversation and the potential fallout from the conversation. Part of the reason is that conflict within a group is often seen as weakness and the appearance of harmony as a strength. This simply is not true.

The fear of having difficult conversations breeds resentment and disillusionment, often bursting out as rage or political infighting, creating much more damage than if the issue was uncovered and addressed earlier.

Creating a psychologically safe place to question authority and suggest alternative solutions is essential in creating a respectful, meaningful and healthy work culture.

What you can do to reduce the fear of conflict: Visualise and rehearse difficult conversations in your mind before your interaction. Preparation is key to making sure you are not triggered in the discussion, and ensures that the right meaning and intent are communicated. Do not wait until it is a major issue before addressing it, and don't spend more time than is needed discussing it. A great book to read about this is Difficult Conversations by Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton and Sheila Heen.

2. We fear ostracism.

We all love to be loved, and animals that stray from the herd are easier pickings for predators. fMRI scans of people's brains show that we feel the pain of ostracism in the same way we feel physical pain.

Therefore, we act in all sorts of maladaptive ways to avoid feeling unpleasant. We compromise our values in order feel accepted, we use the fear of ostracism to bully others into compliance, we cultivate our image to reinforce our group associations, and we prejudice others who are not members of our in-group to make us feel more connected to our tribe.

Even worse, we don't learn to negotiate well, because our fear of not being liked trumps whatever potential gain we might get from negotiating a better outcome for ourselves. This also leads to disillusionment and resentment.

What you can do to reduce the fear of ostracism: Actively invest in multiple social circles, so if one breaks down you still have good support networks.

3. We fear failure.

A lot is written about the problems with fearing failure. In business, failure is simply one of the bus stops on the journey to success, but all too often we see failure as an indicator that something is wrong - that something needs to be fixed.

We underestimate the role that luck and circumstance have in success and even punish colleagues who took a risk that didn't pay off, further reinforcing to the rest of the workplace that it's best not to try anything new.

We often develop a fear of failure as a result of the trauma associated with previous failures, or growing up in a highly critical family environment. Being raised in a highly critical or unsupportive environment can cause people to become fearful of never being able to live up to expectations, often then setting unrealistic expectations.

What you can do to reduce the fear of failure: Gratefulness exercises. Every day, learn to be grateful for intrinsic qualities you possess, people who love you and are loyal to you, memories and experiences that made you better or happier, and for the things in your immediate environment that make life more beautiful. Keep the focus on how amazing you and your life is, and the sting of failure lessens.

fear of failure

4. We fear being seen as foolish.

When Bono, the lead singer of mega-band U2, was asked in his biography if there was anything he wished he'd done better when he was young, he simply replied, "I wish I was braver".  He goes on to recount how there were many conversations he didn't have, people he didn't approach, or ideas he didn't share, simply because he feared that he might look foolish.

Looking back on those moments, he realised that he had absolutely nothing to lose, and that if they said no, or thought an idea was crazy, then he would have been no worse off than if he had never said it at all. He had no idea why he was so scared.

However, we all know this feeling, particularly when we want to approach someone who we think could make a significant difference to our success. I believe this is more than simply fearing rejection, but rather that we crave holding onto the possibility of opportunity. We know that the potential crushing of that hope would be painful, so we make the choice to avoid potential pain by staying silent.

Rare is the person who enjoys being the fool, but rarely having the bravery to approach someone will make you appear foolish. Inconvenient and annoying possibly, but not foolish.

This fear of being foolish also plays out when we compare ourselves to others as an indication of how we are progressing in life, even though we have no idea what is actually happening in other people's lives.

If we perceive ourselves as being more successful than others around us, or at least not being in the bottom half, then we must be smart. This is why if all our friends have boats, luxury items or own their own home outright, then we feel more pressure on ourselves to acquire those things as well.

What you can do to reduce the fear of being unintelligent: Help take the focus off others and intentionally affirm yourself every day. It can also help to repeat the famous mantra from the Winnie the Pooh books: "You're braver than you believe, and stronger and smarter than you think." Learn to see the good in yourself and speak it out loud. Most people find that simply saying three affirmations every morning helps set up a more positive, braver mindset for the rest of the day.

5. We fear the future.

Psychologists have for a long time noted that people are terrible at predicting the future, but that doesn't stop us worrying unnecessarily. Whether it's being nervous about an upcoming meeting or stressing about how fast (or slow) your career is progressing, worrying excessively about something that hasn't happened yet doesn't make any sense.

Preparing for the proverbial rainy day or making hay while the sun shines is one thing, but fearing the future is a whole different ball game.

In business, knowing when to recognise an actual threat as opposed to being overwhelmed by potential threats is key to winning.

It's no different in our personal careers and work lives. Fearing the future or what might be sends us into a downward spiral of panic and sleeplessness. Planning and working towards a better future is good - freaking out about it, isn't.

What you can do to reduce the fear of the future: Breathing exercises (like box breathing) to help calm the mind and focus on the present. This helps in two ways. First, it calms your physiology (heart rate), which helps stem the flow of cortisol and other "fear" chemicals released into your system. Second, it focuses your attention on the present environment that you can control, as opposed to the future scenario that is a fantasy. Do better today, and tomorrow will take care of itself.

6. We fear losing control

We fear losing control because we think bad things will happen to us if we leave outcomes of events up to chance.

Controlling people are in a continuous state of high fear arousal, jumping from one crisis to the next. These people do not like the idea that chance plays a huge part in successful outcomes, believing that effort and vigilance alone can force outcomes.

The problem is that no evidence supports this notion. Controlling people see everything good as a result of their effort, and everything bad as the fault of someone else.

Control is the enemy of trust. Trust is the most powerful of all tools to build group connectedness and it enable others to step up and take hold of their full potential. Trust in yourself and in your own competence is the doorway to leading a confident and content life.

What you can do to reduce the fear of losing control: Face the unavoidable reality of an uncertain future with peace. Confront your angst, call out the choices you are making about the way you feel about the future. Recognise the state of fear that may have become familiar, even status quo for you and recognise that it is destroying you and your relationships.

Understanding and managing these six big fears will help you better navigate your career and better build sustainable wealth.

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Phil Slade is a behavioural economist and psychologist and the author of Going Ape S#!t! and founder of Decida. He works across digital innovation, strategy and cognitive bias. Phil holds a Bachelor of Psychology from The University of Queensland and a Master of Organisational Psychology from Griffith University.