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Fear Drives More People at Work Than You Think. Let's Change That.

No matter how scary the prospect, striving to achieve your career goals will always yield better results than staying stuck and afraid.

A typical list of common fears and phobias might contain things like spiders, planes, enclosed spaces, and the "unknown." "My co-workers" rarely appears on such lists--but it's a valid one for many people. I can't tell you how many times I've witnessed colleagues forego making an objective decision in favor of one predicated on fear of others. Chances are we all can relate, yet we rarely discuss it. 

Consider this hypothetical situation. Gretchen has been at her company for more than a year.  Having built a marketing action plan for her product launch that's been reviewed and approved by her team, she's ready to present it to leadership. 

The day before the presentation, she gets a direct message from a co-worker: "My boss asked me if we've included magazine ads, so can we be sure to put them in there?" 

This makes no sense to Gretchen. Magazine ads put the launch way over budget, and the approved plan focuses on a digital marketing strategy. Her co-worker's boss isn't part of the marketing team. When pressed, the co-worker says, "Well, you know my boss." 

Why is this illogical fire drill happening?

One word: Fear.

Let's look at the facts: 

  1. The co-worker's supervisor wasn't mandating that magazine ads be included; they just asked, "Have you included magazine ads?"
  2. The supervisor isn't part of the team evaluating the marketing plan.
  3. The plan is a team-based effort--meaning shared accountability and shared responsibility.

Objectively speaking, there's no reason to be scared. So what gives? 

I know (far too many) people whose job performance seems predicated on fear that's often irrational, and fueled by hypothetical "what if?" scenarios instead of facts. The result? Sub-optimal decision-making, fire drills, needless reworks, and an unhappy team.

Fear at work needn't be commonplace. Where does it come from, and how can you banish it and present your best self?

Where Does Workplace Fear Come From?

In human psychology, fear is a powerful and primitive emotion--it alerts us to both physical and psychological danger. And while we may (rightly) fear, say, heights and weapons because they can cause physical harm, what things like about public speaking, getting on a client call, or standing up for yourself at the office?

Sometimes, we fear consequences--losing a job, or being embarrassed in front of colleagues--even though such thoughts are irrational. Nevertheless, I've witnessed much workplace anxiety rooted in these cognitive distortions.

What Do I Do About It? 

Following are some specific fears I've witnessed and how you can approach them. 

Failing the Boss

The fear that a displeased supervisor or higher-up will torpedo your chances of advancing at work is a common one among new employees who feel compelled to prove their worth. I'll admit, this fear drives me to work overtime every time I start a new job.

I spoke to one of my favorite co-workers--Beth Sharpes, head of business operations at Enspira--for her take. Fearing superiors' reactions, she said, often indicates that an employee's motivation depends on external affirmation. Instead, try shifting your focus inwards — do the job well because you care about the result and your professional growth, not just to impress your manager.

Well said, Beth. 

Also, remember that objectively good results merit objectively better performance metrics. You might suffer the short-term pain of standing up for yourself, but you'll reap the long-term reward of differentiating yourself with great work. 

Loss of Reputation or Personal Capital

This one is a bit more nebulous. People makes decisions based on fear of what colleagues will think of them, entirely unrelated to a bonus or promotion. Simply put, they're driven by a sense of self-preservation. 

I don’t have an easy answer for this one. But as a worker--and especially as a leader-- you have a duty to make decisions that benefit the people and organizations you serve first and foremost, not yourself. Do the right thing.

Inadequacy or Imposter Syndrome

According to studies, a whopping 70% of people may experience imposter syndrome at some point in their career--the idea that we're not talented, qualified, or intelligent enough for our jobs. As a result, our confidence tanks, and the fear of failure grows.

This is entirely ego-based--and, as a good friend of mine once told me, "We can't let our ego get in the way of what we were meant to do."

Easier said than done. I recommend a professional coach or therapist, who can address feelings of inadequacy and work with you to confront, sidestep, or ignore your ego. 


Many of us were raised not to question authority. As an Asian-American, deference to authority is an especially strong value rooted in my upbringing and culture. As a result, we sometimes have a natural disposition to execute without question, simply because the request comes from someone in a position of power. 

For this one, asking questions that help you understand the "why" behind a particular ask can contribute to greater transparency around the deliverable or conversation, and allows you to offer input. 

As a leader, understanding this fear is essential. One of my favorite team leaders used to always say, "I just give ideas, but it's always on the associate to determine if or what they want to do with it." Communicating that you value input from your team on your feedback and direction changes the nature of those communications from orders to fruitful discussions.

Traumatic Memories

Bad experiences, emotional wounds, unfair circumstances: memories of traumatic events can keep employees mired in a state of perpetual fear. Though it takes time, I've found that the best way to cope is to slowly share your feelings and experiences with those you trust. A coach or therapist can provide a safe space for these conversations. 

On the flip side, past traumatic events can also empower you. As you work through these experiences in the ensuing years and realize you're doing just fine, this new-earned confidence can positively inform your life--and your work.

Just Don't Be Afraid. Your Co-Workers Will Thank You. Your Internal Self will Thank You. 

As I've learned firsthand, living in fear at work is a lose-lose-lose scenario.

When your fear erodes your physical and emotional well-being, you rob yourself of the interesting, engaging, and beneficial experience work could be. 

Your co-workers lose too: fire drills and needless reworks quickly create burnout, which also strains workplace relationships.

Organizations also lose out. When we're fearful, we inhibit our decision-making skills, which curtails our ability to generate good ideas that ultimately benefit our workplace.

Fear prompts retreat. No matter how scary something may seem, moving forward and taking risks to achieve your goals will always yield better results than remaining stuck and afraid. 

Remember: Fortune favors the bold!

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