Fear in Higher Ed… Fear in the workplace…

I’ve been thinking a lot about this concept of fear in the workplace.  What causes it?  What are the signs and  symptoms?  How do you reduce it?  A big part of positive organizational culture change involves “getting the fear out.”  But what is the nature of fear?  Specifically in higher education?

Fear is multi-dimensional, cultural, and individualized.  Because of this, it’s hard to discuss fear as a monolithic concept or something that has a single prescribed fix.  In general, however, there are some ways of understanding fear as a broad concept.

What is fear?

Fear can be a lot of things.  But at its core, it’s something that holds you back.  Something that changes your behavior.  When its pervasive, and takes hold in a culture, it can be incredibly disruptive to the workplace.  Some fears that show up include:

  • Fear of getting fired
  • Fear of looking like you don’t know what your doing
  • Fear of “losing face”
  • Fear of gaining a negative reputation
  • Fear of being “yelled at”
  • Fear of taking risks

What causes fear in the workplace?

Fear can come from an individual or from the collective.  One may be fearful of a particular individual, or it can pervade a culture such that it becomes part of the socialization process perpetuating itself.  At its core, however, fear comes from individuals not feeling empowered to do their work.  When the consequences of acting are so great, one is demotivated from acting at all.

Fear can be learned or can result from our own insecurities.  We learn fear through our interactions with others and the consequences they bring.  We learn fear because others around us socialize us into thinking “that’s the way things are here.”  Our own insecurities can also sometimes hold us back.  We may even experience fear when there’s no rational reason for doing so.

See also Nancy Schlossberg’s concepts of marginality and mattering for good insights into fear.

What are the signs and symptoms that there is fear in the workplace?

When there is fear in the workplace, people can often begin to avoid making decisions.  If you’re not making decisions, you can’t take the blame.  This is a classic avoidance strategy.  It can be perfectly rational, but isn’t the best place to be.

People can become territorial in an attempt to exert control over a specific, usually narrow, sphere of influence.  By “keeping your head down” you avoid putting yourself in a place where you might be called out.  Staying rigid to the way things were always done also gives the illusion hat you are in control.

The debilitating nature of fear means that over time, individuals may lose motivation in their job and focus on completing tasks, not on continuous improvement.  As a result, organizations can become stagnant.  They worry more about maintenance and less about pushing boundaries.


Infographic from CMD

How can you reduce fear in the workplace?

I intentionally used the term “reduce” because I think that a little bit of fear may actually be healthy.  Fear can be a motivator.  When working on a big task, or perhaps something that you don’t particularly want to do, a little bit of fear (or maybe it’s guilt?) can help you push through.  Fear can be a sign that you care about something.  Where fear becomes unhealthy is when it start leading to some of the signs and symptoms I noted above.  It’s when it actually changes the way you do work.

If you’re in a position of power to reduce fear, you need to help build trust and a sense of empowerment.  Listen to staff members and make them feel their input matters.  Allow them to take calculated risks.  Support them when they make mistakes.  That doesn’t mean that you give colleagues carte blanche, but set expectations high, communicate those expectations.  Step back and ask colleagues, “What do you think we should do?”  Reassure them that you “trust their judgment.”  Help them realize there might be areas where being directive is required and areas where there is more latitude.

If you’re on the receiving end of fear, ask yourself what you can do to help reduce it.  Do you need to have a hard conversation with a supervisor?  Might you consider bringing the idea out in the open in an abstract sense as a part of professional development, a brown bag lunch discussion, or a broader conversation about workplace culture?  It’s a tough position to be in as sometimes fear is legitimately felt.  Sometimes there are real consequences.  Sometimes moving on to another position or institution is the only or best strategy.  (Know when to hold ’em and when to fold ’em.)


Above all, remember that this is a cultural change.  It takes time.  Years.  It may even require staff to move on and new blood to enter the organization to reset work patterns.  We need to grapple with fear.  Our own fears and the fear around us.  I found the following infographic from the  U.K. financial-protection insurer Unum which I think does a good job of outlining some of these issues.  What do you think about fear?  What are you afraid of? 


Image Credit: Scary by Howard Lake

6 thoughts on “Fear in Higher Ed… Fear in the workplace…

  1. Valuable info Paul – sometimes we are so focused on students that we forget about our employees – especially those who are just a few years removed from being students themselves. This is particularly applicable to colleges with limited resources.

  2. So well written and speaks truth that many of us have been facing for years.

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