• Clare Cohen

Are we programmed for fear?

It’s that spooky time of year again and here at Jyre we’re looking at fear itself when it comes to the workplace.



Pah! What’s so bad about a bit of fear?

Some might think that a little fear-based adrenaline and a “healthy respect” for the boss keeps us all on our toes, stops us from slacking off and maintains an efficient chain of command. Such simplistic assumptions are dubious in any case, and furthermore, the effects of even low levels of fear in the workplace include:

Pretty scary, right?


But that doesn’t apply to me - I’m nice...


Oh yes it does!

Whether you are a team member, a junior supervisor, a team lead, a leader of leaders or inhabit the C-Suite - some people will at times be afraid to oppose you. It’s just that you may not be aware of who they are, it’s that THEY are unlikely to be fully conscious of it either!


We are programmed for fear

Despite efforts to level the playing field, fear towards authority figures at work is still alive and kicking. Researchers studying workplace fear draw upon evolutionary psychology and neuroscience for insights.


“Obedience to higher-status others was bred into humans through the extended operation of evolutionary processes”

A quote from Milgram, a psychologist who performed controversial experiments to test the limits of human obedience.


The research suggests that interacting with “higher status” individuals - e.g. your boss, or more experienced and senior colleagues represents a pre-prepared, evolutionary based fear.

These are deeply ingrained fears that our evolution has, over millennia, prepared our brains to react quickly and automatically to. More obvious examples include snakes and spiders!



So our brains treat spiders, hairy mammoths and bosses as all very similar in terms of threat?


Yes, pretty much.


Hold on…


Surely we can pro-actively overcome such base and irrational fears? ... Erm…quite often, no!

With this type of threat, the brain automatically prepares us to respond with a ‘better safe than sorry’ response. If this is so, then the behaviours we would expect to see in these interactions might range from tense freezing up to an absence of opinions, or a desire to not rock the boat or even a belief that others know best in this situation.


Can you recognise this in yourself or others?


So how can you overcome this?

What can we do to overturn millions of years of programming to stop us from clamming up?

We can work with this process, not against it! Jyre has found that working as a team to consciously overcome this is a great start!


3 Effective Team-based Approaches:

  • When tackling a defined problem, start with individual reflection, then discuss in pairs, then in small groups. Feedback summarised discussions to the whole group.

  • Practice distributed leadership - assign initiative ‘owners’ or pairs/trios who can adopt an elevated decision-making status for that initiative

  • Team leaders actively appoint specific ‘disruptors’ on initiatives. Their responsibility is to productively challenge, oppose or break the chosen solution as it is being constructed

3 top tips if you’re the most senior person in the room:

If you want to avoid deathly silence in your meetings, then try using some of these phrases:

  • “This solution I’ve come up with is far from brilliant, but I don’t have the expertise to improve it. Can you guys help me?”

  • “An idea you mentioned before really inspired me but I don’t know enough about it. Can you run with that some more?”

  • “I have no idea how our client/stakeholder will respond to this. You guys know them better - can you give me a feel for this?”


Does fear possess your team?


Now you know that fear will continue to raise its ugly head unless you consistently and actively take steps to undermine its power…


And if you don’t, then just watch as the ‘dead start to walk in their masquerade’….


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