In a word – yes. And to an extent, that is a good thing. Fear is a response to danger. It is a call to action. The action you take could be heroic or cowardly. In other words, it is your reaction to fear that can be negative or positive but that doesn’t mean that fear is the enemy. Fear is an instinctual response to danger and thank goodness! To be machine-like, and unable to respond to danger with all the nuance of a human, would be the end of us.
Fear tells us to push away from something that could harm us – it is the instinct to avoid pain, be it physical or psychological. The positive response to fear is to get tough, prepare, build your resources, fortify, strategize, collect metrics, gather information. This is the foundation of many businesses today.
The dark response to fear is to deny, assess blame (on others), avoid, self-protect. This shows up in the workplace, as well, when fear is not well understood and results in shadow responses.
Fear is the driving force when self-discipline is required. You look at impending doom (low sales) and decide to do whatever unpleasant task is required to change that outcome into something desirable. You exercise that just-do-it anyway muscle, and it is a muscle. With practice you get really good at it.
The key when using the fear factor in the workplace is to make sure everyone is very clear on the real consequences of failure and the rewards of success. These have to outweigh the effort required. If you overdo it, and success is unattainable such as when people can’t keep working at that pace, an atmosphere of avoidance, denial, and blame will dominate.
Delayed gratification is another crucial part of the fear-driven world. Some things are only earned after a period of hard work. There is a famous marshmallow experiment where kids were told they could have a marshmallow now or two if they waited until a later time. Some kids couldn’t wait. (Incidentally they were less successful in academia and possibly in life).
Putting in effort now for something you want later is grounded in an ability to plan for the future. Placing yourself on a time line with a view of the past and the future is part of the fear driven world. When you can learn from the past and project into the future, you can endure lessor pain now for a greater gain later.
In the face of fear we are also called to be self-sacrificing. Bravery in the service of others develops self-esteem. The more agency we feel to push back the boundaries of our mortality the more we build a positive sense of self. Here the key is to have the freedom to use your abilities to solve problems. Research by Martin Seligman shows that challenge without the agency to follow through on your instincts for what will resolve the issue leads to high stress and trauma. Micromanaging is a fear-driven form of management that is very detrimental to workers.
So let’s call a spade a spade. Fear is a major driver in the workplace. Now we can really explore what that means and learn to use it well.