People & Human Resources

How fears can hold you back at work

Eve Ash /

Fears drive our behaviours and are often the reason for our decisions and actions at work. 

What do we fear? Lots of things:

  • not being liked
  • conflict
  • not being in control
  • failing — being wrong
  • not knowing, uncertainty
  • being embarrassed
  • losing relationships
  • being ignored or even rejected
  • being criticised
  • changes

“There’s nothing to fear but fear itself”. In 1933, American president Franklin Delano Roosevelt actually said, “So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyses needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.” It’s excellent, bracing advice in dark political times, which has resonance in today’s volatile international economic climate.

A case of fear

A woman with great experience and collaborative skills commenced a new job. The team she joined struggles to achieve its targets and continually chops and changes its procedures, but the leadership team likes to imagine it’s a great place to work. Her line manager provided her with next to no onboarding. Soon after starting, a bullying colleague overstepped the mark and she served it right back. She questioned the unit management. Everyone has their headsets on for most of the day and staff are stressed and unhappy. A team? No, a group of people unable to discuss the toxic nature of the culture, unaware of the impact on new people, unwilling to give feedback to a bully; a workplace where the woman, new to the team, retreats into her shell, no longer able to speak up.

If you’re experiencing something like the above, your fears are by no means groundless. FDR is right, however, that unharnessed fears are ugly and contagious, and damaging to the individual and collectively.

Take responsibility for yourself

If you think your fears are holding you back, ask yourself: do you fear the consequences of taking action even more?

If you do (and possibly for very good reasons — it may be hard to get another job right away, you have dependents at home, you’re worried about your mortgage or rent, and so on), take responsibility for yourself. This entails objective recognition of your current work scenario — are you in a position to change what’s bothering you? Is there someone trustworthy you can speak with? If not, then start quietly looking for other roles, and use your current circumstances to excel as best you can. Be assertive but civil, and keep a record of practices and treatment that impact on your performance. 

Help your team members overcome fears

Be open. Generate (as much as you can) a culture of openness, both one-on-one and in a low-key but receptive way with teams.

Give thoughtful, honest feedback. “Play the ball but not the person” when you do, deploying straightforwardness and awareness of what may be motivating the other person.

Be aware of cultural differences. These can’t be underestimated just because there are some glib mission statements about diversity pasted above the photocopier and in the kitchen. Some cultures do not appreciate bulls at the gate when it comes to assertiveness and frankness.

Show interest. Make sure you are friendly, informal, personable and interested in others. This can be difficult when (like our case above) you’re in a team environment where people are anything but. Remain courteous — let your work do the talking.

Be realistic. Both for yourself and with others, especially if you have people reporting to you. Milestones are less onerous when you don’t introduce them out of nowhere and then complain that people aren’t meeting them.

Don’t let fears hold you back. Look after yourself! Deal with the fears in your mind and gut by regulating your emotions, mental and physical health. Be the kind of person you’d respect in the workplace, alleviating fear. 

READ NOW: Ten communication skills to improve work relationships

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Eve Ash

Eve Ash is a psychologist, author, filmmaker, public speaker and entrepreneur. She runs Seven Dimensions, a company specialising in training resources for the workplace.

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