A culture of fear

Mar 24 2014 by Peter Vajda Print This Article

Every day in workplaces ¬large and small - from Fortune 50 corporations to high-tech start-ups, 'mom and pop' ventures or not-for-profits, people are living in fear. It might be fear of losing their jobs, fear of being judged and criticized, fear of being disliked, fear of being embarrassed, fear of being ostracized, fear of making mistakes, fear of being the target of gossip or fear of facing uncomfortable challenges or problems.

The same workplaces are also home to individuals happy to indulge in inappropriate behaviour, deceit, fraud, harassment, gossiping, lying, cheating and stealing.

Yet at the same time, many organizations exhort their employees to abide by organizational values such as honesty, integrity, trust and openness.

The 'dirty little secret' (maybe not so little) is many of our workplaces are challenged when it comes to looking into the honesty mirror. It's not so much that inappropriate behaviour exists, it's that so many people – especially those in positions of authority or influence – choose to turn a blind eye to them. Why? Because they are afraid, too. They live life at work in a culture of fear.

The problem

Most of us have learned to keep our fear to ourselves. We are reluctant to speak out, reluctant to be the bearer or bad news or to admit that we screwed up and made a mistake. We don't want to ask a colleague to change their behaviour, let alone point out cheating, fraud or deceit, expose failed processes or to admit to defective products. Fear resounds, but often very quietly.

Fear leads to denial, defensiveness and delusion. People suppress their fears, deluding themselves that they're living in a world where all appears is well and nothing is amiss. a But it's a fantasy world.

The solution

The solution to fear begins with appreciation. That means admitting our fears and owning them. It means exploring the self-imposed silence that keeps us from speaking out ¬and causes the low-grade anxiety and agitation we feel when we keep our fears hidden and suppressed.

We're all familiar with the silence of fear. It's always there, lurking just below the surface. In team meetings, in one-on-one meetings, when engaging with clients and customers, even in social situations, ¬ all the while we are in conversation and dialogue ¬ we know and sense the silence of fear.

We feel the tension in our shoulders and the queasiness in our stomachs. We feel the constriction in our throats and the tightness in our chest. We feel quiet, passive, withdrawn and deferential. We don't make eye contact. We are silently angry. We feel embarrassed, cowardly, passive and reluctant. We're there, but we're not. We hold a large part of our selves back.

The good news is that these feelings means that we are experiencing our fear – the first step towards addressing it. It's helpful to notice where we are at any given moment on the continuum between fear and hope - hope that our life at work can be different. It's helpful and healing to experience an awareness of the internal conflict between being open, honest and authentic and being shut down and constricted just so that we can survive and collect our pay check.

This awareness is the first step on the road towards change. But once we notice our fears, then what?

Showing up

The opposite of being fearful is being courageous. But being courageous is not about "not having fear". Being courageous is about showing up - authentically, in integrity - in spite of our fear. It means being our best for our own sake and the sake of our organization, team, or unit.

Some questions for self-reflection
  • Who or what causes you to experience fear at work, to not speak up or out?
  • Can you acknowledge your fears? Can you give yourself permission to feel afraid?
  • When was the last time you spoke up or against an inappropriate behavior?
  • Do you ever confide in others about your fears? Do others confide in you?
  • Are you open to admitting your mistakes?
  • What is your organization's culture around making mistakes?
  • Are you afraid to give or receive "bad news"?
  • Are you afraid of being criticized, embarrassed or disliked? Why?
  • Are you afraid of confronting a serious workplace issue? Why?
  • Do you attempt to mask your workplace fears? How?
  • Do you generally have the courage to speak up in spite of feeling fearful?
  • Do you feel authentic at work?
  • Is the silence of fear peaceful and quiet (internally) for you?
  • What one or two baby steps could you take to act courageously in spite of your fear, to step beyond the silence of fear?
  • Did you (learn to) express your fears as a child?

Fear has no purpose. There is no "upside" to being afraid. From a place of authenticity and integrity we can acknowledge there's no sense in being fearful. Being authentic means that we can live in spite of fear and that by acknowledging we are afraid, we can be present to our experience. Only then can we generate the energy of courage, will and strength to "show up".

When we try to bury our feelings, we bury them alive. But when we admit our fear, the shackles of fear are loosened. We become free when we openly speak out about our fears, and allow others to speak about theirs. The truth does set you free.

When we hear others talk about their fears of being fired, or reprimanded or denigrated for saying or doing something, we need to compassionately listen to them and create a container of safety to support their disclosing. Critical to shedding our fears and acting courageously is admitting to the discomfort that fear causes us - having it, but not being it.

Self-awareness about "who we are" and "how we are" in the workplace helps to create a culture that is not fear-based. Being open to feedback and constructive criticism (from all those with whom we work – above us, below us, next to us), listening empathically, cooperating with colleagues, respecting others' privacy and individuality, discussing difficult issues from a heart-felt place, and acknowledging that others, too, are steeped in fear in their day-to-day life at work are the ways that we can create a safe, open and honest workplace environment.

Each one of us deserves to be free from fear at work. Being free from fear at work starts with you.

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About The Author

Peter Vajda
Peter Vajda

Peter G. Vajda, Ph.D, C.P.C. is a seminar leader, workshop facilitator and speaker. He is the founding partner of True North Partnering, an Atlanta-based company that supports conscious living through coaching, counselling and facilitating.