Fear in the Workplace

Fear is the human emotion designed to signal potential danger to our basic needs. Yet, fear can be an barrier to our ability to communicate effectively. Ineffective communication leads to a culture of distrust – a culture based on inferences and assumptions that may, or may not be, accurate. 

In the workplace, fear surfaces through all sorts of daily interactions. It can be initiated by a comment, an e-mail, a closed door, and even a glance. When the meaning or intent of any of these acts aren’t understood, we rely on our past experiences and/or the experiences of others to make meaning of them. Then, we rely on this meaning to determine how to react/respond.

Why don’t we just simply ask the meaning?


What are we afraid of?

• the fear of seeming ignorant or incompetent;
• the fear of being perceived as insubordinate;
• the fear of being accused of not being a “team player”;
• the fear that our reputation will be damaged; and
• the fear of losing our livelihood and source of income.

Fear perpetuates further mis- or non-communication and the lack of understanding resulting in uncertainty and distrust.

Feeling confident that we can effectively handle a situation is key to overcoming fear. And, this is exactly the type of confidence we tend to lack.

For example, your boss sends you an e-mail that you perceive to be very critical of a decision you’ve made. Is it actually a criticism? How can you be sure? With little, if any, self-reflection, you might:

• shoot off a rude reply;
• leave the e-mail in your inbox unanswered hoping it will go away;
• avoid the boss as much as possible;
• re-read the e-mail fifty times attempting to decipher its “real” meaning;
• share the e-mail with a trusted co-worker for his or her interpretation;
• keep telling yourself to “let it go” when the truth is you can’t, and it’s impacting your ability to do your best work;
• make negative comments about your boss to anyone who’ll listen; and/or
• deliberately fail to provide important information your boss needs to know.

Why don’t we just approach the boss and ask about the e-mail? Although any of the fears outlined above may prevent us from doing so, our single greatest fear is that we don’t know how to approach the situation without making things worse. 

What would it take to have the confidence to know that you can effectively approach a difficult situation at work?  

Your thoughts?

Healy Conflict Management Services



About Debra Healy
Conflict Consultant Specializing in Employment and Workplace Conflict Mediation/Facilitation/Conflict Coaching/Conflict Training

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