professional risks are acute and realistic. Even in the
midst of unthinkable crises, workers are expected to
continue to meet their typical performance targets.
The prevalence and strength of this workplace norm
cause employees to be very reluctant to admit that
they are afraid.
Nonetheless, it is essential to address fear at
work because this negative emotion packs a
wallop. Fear seizes individuals’ attention while simultaneously diminishing their objectivity. Being
afraid can erode employees’ decision-making abilities and confidence. Fear stimulates catastrophic
thinking, leading employees to replay the past, fret
about the future, and disengage from the present.
Being scared undermines employees’ tolerance for
ambiguity and complexity, a crucial success factor
for today’s competitive environment. Further, the
negative impact of fear can linger long after dangers prove unfounded. In the meantime, studies
I’ve worked on show that worried employees may
attempt to unload their concerns on colleagues,
setting off additional negative emotions across the
When fear is engendered by coworkers or bosses,
employees trim their time at work, accept fewer responsibilities, and accomplish less. When their
fears are ignored, employees take action to protect
themselves from the dangers that they recognize or
imagine. Rather than striking out at the individuals
who scare them, employees often displace their
negative reactions onto the organization that has
failed to protect them.
If fear lingers, employees start looking for new
jobs. In fact, of the negative emotions that Porath
and I have tracked for more than two decades, fear
is the emotion most likely to cause employees to
quit, although they are unlikely to cite fear as the
catalyst for their departure. 16
As individuals are unlikely to report their fears in
the workplace, the burden is on executives to address this commonplace challenge. Nonetheless,
some executives choose to ignore the problem of
frightened employees or even deny or minimize the
situation engendering fear in the first place. Others
may recognize the cause of fear but leave the burden
of dealing with it to those who are afraid, despite
costly outcomes. The following two actions are
essential when fear churns.
Deal with employee fear head-on. Action is a
powerful antidote to fear. Our research suggests
that being frank and providing reasonable, realistic
reassurance can signal that someone is in control.
This awareness can help employees who are afraid.
One executive described how he successfully approaches fear in the workplace: “I allow fearful
employees to vent, and I try not to let their fear spiral out of control. I assure them as much as I can.
I listen carefully to their concerns and honestly
provide whatever facts I can.”
Help employees avoid exaggerating perceived
dangers. To keep fear from spinning out of control,
be honest and up front about challenges while
infusing authentic enthusiasm about realistic opportunities and benefits that may lie ahead. Share
your own concerns reasonably to ease others into
discussing theirs. Encourage employees to gather
facts and help them face their individual fears rather
than slipping into the victim’s role, a perspective that
engenders hopelessness and unhappiness.
A common source and stimulant of workplace
anxiety is the rumor mill. My fellow researchers and
I have observed managers and executives attempt to
mitigate fear by withholding details of changes on
the horizon. Rather than assuaging concerns, however, lack of information leads to speculation, often
with worse outcomes than reality would hold. To
ward off fear and avert this problem, overcommuni-cate and find ways to recognize or reward those who
persist despite their fears.
Sadness Sadness may be the most unwelcome
emotion at work. Working with sad people crushes
enthusiasm, drains productivity, and dulls esprit de
corps. Sad employees display low energy and lose
interest in what once engaged them.
According to our survey and interview data, sad
employees tend to show up later, leave earlier,
avoid potentially unpleasant meetings, seek offsite
assignments, and seize opportunities to work
remotely. 17 Those deeply saddened become apathetic. Some sad employees give up and quit.
Despite such costly consequences, however, executives will find scant research or recommendations
about dealing with sadness. To improve this, I offer
the following suggestions based on my research