In Fear of Fear

I’ve been hearing a lot about the ‘F’ word lately. Fear is all around us, and as a basic fight or flight mechanism we couldn’t live without it. Beyond that though – how do we check it and prevent it from lurking in our minds and affecting our decisions. When I worked in BT I watched the responses that strongly disagreed with the ‘I believe it is safe to speak up’ statement in the staff survey, steadily grow over five years. Every time I mentioned what I was seeing there was plenty of staring at shoes, and precious little else. I’m not proud of the fact that after a while I stopped banging the drum, primarily out of boredom.

Fear – Not My Problem

‘This fear thing doesn’t affect me – I’m not afraid to tell it like it is’ might be your response, and I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard responses like ‘That’s people stuff, HR’s job’, but here’s some data that suggests just over a third of US employees don’t speak up for fear of retribution. So even if you’re one of the brave, the chances are you’re working with people who don’t feel the same way. And whilst I’m not a fan of departmentalising the responsibility for being human, I think this is a really interesting and important challenge for Brave HR to step confidently into and lead the way, maybe as part of a wellness or wellbeing strategy?

Fear – Coming From The Top?

We’re good at attributing problems to those more distant from us. By way of a recent example, Tim Scott, Stephen Tovey and I got into a discussion on Twitter about fear at work and how it manifests itself, which you can flick through here:

Twitter Chat Screenshot

And whilst I’m sure that you too can recall examples of that top down ‘fear as a weapon’ approach, I think there’s more to it than that.

Fear – How Do We Experience It?

When you see people not objecting to bad behaviour, it is fear that constrains them.

When you see people saying yes when they want to say no, it is usually fear that is driving them.

When you see people staying silent when they should be speaking out, it is fear holding their tongues.

When leaders ask, “Is that agreed?”, they often take as agreement the silence that is most people’s greatest protest.

When you see senior management not sharing their concerns with junior staff because it might harm morale, it is fear that is causing them to keep their secret. That fear denies them access to the creative minds that may help them solve the problems causing their fear.

We all have the potential to be crippled and corroded by fear – it is not the sole preserve of the front line.

Fear – How Do We Deal With It?

I’ve spent my adult life overcoming fear. For me, one aspect is my fear of presenting. Whuh! Yep – it’s true, I get totes scared before a talk. In Louisiana recently, William Tincup spotted me looking all nervous looking and came up to me, put a hand on my arm and said, ‘If it ain’t scaring ya, you ain’t doing it right’. Thanks William – I appreciated that moment, it was very timely. I manage this fear partly through practicing, partly through some kind of weird mental transmogrification where I channel nerves into excitement, and partly by being open about it. I am completely cool that you know this about me.

A practical thing that one can do at any work meeting is to ask, “What have we agreed to do?” and in turn, “What are you personally going to do to help us achieve what we have all agreed to do?” Anyone is more likely to deliver what he or she hears themselves commit to aloud in front of their peers than to fulfill someone else’s draft of the minutes of a meeting long after the discussion. That commitment and delivery builds positive trust very quickly and has a diminishing affect on fear.

In the workplace I often use ‘Proceed Until Apprehended’ as a call for people I work with to get on and do stuff, don’t wait for permission. It started when I worked in sales at BT and I made it work initially through taking responsibility for my team’s actions. This was easy for me because I trusted them and because we didn’t hide stuff from each other, we just worked in a way that meant we knew what each other were doing, and were the similarities and differences were.

A lot of what we did differently was small, teeny tiny stuff. Stuff like getting to know other teams better, researching customers and their markets more thoroughly, not sending that ‘vital’ report and then realising that when you didn’t send it – no one came looking anyway. And we took the time to learn to listen better. As an aside – Paul Hebert has just published a really good post about selling behaviours, which because they are a lot about building trust, are also helpful in creating a more open, less fearful workplace. I confidently attribute the progress I made in BT in no small part due to Proceed Until Apprehended, and to learning and following some of Paul’s suggested sales behaviours, because this approach led directly to making things better for our customers our colleagues and ourselves.

I spotted this definition of ‘Fearless’ written by Khurshed Dehnugara in response to the question about defining adaptability that I referenced yesterday. Khurshed wrote:  ‘Fearless. The courage to dance at the limits of tolerance, one foot inside – one foot outside of the established order. To overcome the fear of being shunned or thought irrelevant.’ I like this – and wanted to share it with you today.

And of course – you can deal with fear too. If I can, you can. I’m just an ordinary person, so use that fact as a springboard of belief from which to launch yourself. And as a final thought, if the environment in which you operate is so toxic that you really daren’t stray from the path, then leave. Get a better job….after all, what’s stopping you?

Fear – An Update

In the few hours since publishing this I’ve had a lot of feedback and sharing of this post. Thanks. In particular I wanted to share this great piece titled ‘Good at Terrified’ by Heather Bussing that I’ve been made aware of. It takes on fear from another angle and is well worth a read I think.

Author: Doug Shaw

Artist and Consultant. Embracing uncertainty, sketching myself into existence. Helping people do things differently, through an artistic lens.

17 thoughts on “In Fear of Fear”

  1. What has always helped me when I’m in that ‘standing on the edge of a cliff about to step off’ moment, is a quote I read some time ago which was unattributed. I believe it is an Eastern quotation.

    It just says, ‘Leap, and the net will appear.’ For me, that says everything I need to know when I am feeling apprehensive about something I am about to do.

    Great post, Doug. (as always)

    1. Good stuff – that net has helped me many times thanks 🙂

      In conversation with my friend Anthony last night, he came up with ‘You won’t die – Have a go’. I love that too!

  2. An excellent and thought provoking post Doug. I’ve been reflecting on our exchange on and off ever since. I guess it might be easier for me to say this having spent most of my career in SMEs rather than large corporates, but I do genuinely believe one person can make a difference. On the odd occasion I was challenged about the circumstances I mentioned, I suppose my response could be summarised as “yes, but think how bad it would have been if I hadn’t done what little I could”… Not exactly an inspirational response I know but I felt I was brave in the circumstances – which was what I meant by “it depends on organisational culture”. I won some arguments, comprehensively lost others and had some score draws. Sometimes being brave is just being prepared to raise your head above the parapet when others don’t or won’t… at least maybe you can draw the fire!

    1. Draw the fire – I like that analogy. And yes – we often underestimate the impact of the little that we do. Small is the new significant. What is the least I can do today to make a positive impact? Thanks for commenting Tim – and for rebooting my thinking on this subject.

  3. Great article Doug… oftentimes we call that anxiety “butterflies” and it is my belief that if you ever become completely dull to those then, on some level, you’ve gotten to a point where you don’t care about audience. Butterflies come with presenting. I think the great speakers learn how to live with the butterflies.

    Again, great article and keep doing what you do…


    1. Thank you for the support William. And the Sprinkles cupcake too – that was excellent. Lovely to hear from you on here dude.

  4. Doug

    All very nice in theory, however to those of us at the coal face, FEAR is a daily reality. Fear of loosing one’s livelihood and being unable to support your family is real and palpable.

    Working for a large outfit, you’re just a number and if you fall foul of some bully boy manager, you’re stuffed and my company HR don’t give a monkey’s.

    Normally matey, I’m with a lot of what your say, but not this time. Fear is not imaginary.


    1. Hi Steve – I really appreciate you being in touch, thanks. And I agree with you – fear can be a daily reality, as someone building a business in uncertain times I can relate to some of what you say.

      From my own experience of working in a big company, I left after 12.5 years and walked into the coldest, harshest economic climate on record to start up on my own because I could no longer tolerate the behaviour going on around and above me. I had my own experience of being bullied at work and yes, it’s awful. I wrote about it here:

      Sorry if I created the impression that fear is imaginary – it ain’t, and that was not my intention. And I do think there are ways it can be managed, even conquered in some cases.

      Good to hear from you Steve – I appreciate that we keep in touch.

  5. Hi Doug. It appears as though I have a thing for your posts at the moment as they are all resonating. The current climate has more fear in it than at any other time I have known. As Steve puts it, the ultimate fear of not being able to provide safety for you and/or your family is a huge and real thing.

    Like you, stepping out of work and setting up on my own in the worst economic times in a generation was and still is an incredibly scary thing. The more we can do to acknowledge and manage our fear(s) the better.

    As an aside, did you see my post about HR being the fear filled profession? It will give you more on the origins and function of this truly amazing emotion. Here’s the link:

    1. Hey Phil – thanks for popping by.

      First and foremost I want to acknowledge that feedback and encouragement from you and others is lifting me and my writing. Thank you and long may that continue.

      Second, I’m very pleased you shared your blog post, it helps build on a theme that like you say, we all need to work with. And the photo at the end is bang on!

      Cheers – Doug

  6. Hi Dave

    I read your post just as I was finishing off my latest musing on naming undiscussables (which is here I focused on the conditions that create ‘undiscussables’, that in turn generate the lived experience(s) you describe. What you relate above reminds me of Chris Argyris’ comments years ago that the fact that something may be undiscussable is in and of itself undiscussable. Under those circumstances, fear (and over time a sense of ‘am I going mad?’-ness) are natural reactions.

    The other response I have to this pattern of fear, is to wonder about the role (or rather the absence of) compassion in many organisations. ‘Compassionate Leadership’ is not something I have experience much in organisations I have worked in and with.



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