Getting under the skin of fear in the workplace. Introducing Project Fear! by Katie Stotter, Strategy Lead at &us
For the past few months, we’ve been thinking deeply about fear. This year, it’s been hard not to. But recent developments aside, we are specifically interested in how fear manifests in the workplace, and how it interacts with innovation.
At &us, we’re interested in making work joyful, and innovation normal. That means making leaders braver, encouraging individuals to experiment, and helping teams love making things together.
Fear has the potential to fuel or foil these efforts.
Previous research on fear in the workplace has focused on fear of change, or the effects of anxiety and stress on employee productivity. But we thought this was a narrow view, so we’ve not only been looking at fear as an emotion, but also the ripples it sends out into the organisation.
How to think about fear
How we’ve been thinking about fear
- THE THING: At the centre is the thing we actually fear. This might not always be specific like a phobia, or an event. It could be anything from fear of losing your job, to fearing that others think poorly of you.
- THE FEELING: Then we have our emotional response to the thing we fear. And this is not just something we can pathologise or define as a mental health condition. Fear in a workplace setting doesn’t often appear on its own — you may also find yourself confused, angry, or even excited.
- THE ACTIONS: We might also start behaving differently when we feel fear, and this behaviour may affect the way we work.
- THE CULTURE: Finally, our actions may affect our relationships with others, and the way we communicate, impacting the environment that we work in.
Regardless of whether the thing we fear is real or perceived, the effects are very real: on our mindset and openness; on how we approach our work and other people; and on how all of that affects the culture.
Why does it matter?
Our research was designed to look at all of these aspects of fear, giving us a picture of what people say about fear, what it looks like in practice, and how we can improve things. We used a mixture of surveys, interviews, and an experiment which, combined, allowed us to gather insight from over 3000 people (with the help of our friends at ImpactSense who helped us recruit our sample).
What we found has been shocking.
We’ve seen that around 32% of people feel fear in the workplace ‘often’, ‘daily’, or ‘multiple times a day’. That’s a third of the workforce living with persistent fear!
We’ve also seen that once people start to feel fear at work, it can have long-lasting effects, impacting their productivity, creativity, collaboration, and likelihood to propose new ideas. They’re also more likely to leave their job, or worse, remain but feel disengaged and trapped.
And of course, all of these things affect the bottom line.
But we’ve also seen that looking at fear in binary good and bad terms aren’t the best approach, and that fear, when harnessed right, has the potential to be positive.