Much of the fear that often characterizes a workplace may be categorized as irrational, Harvard’s Amy Edmondson observes.
The distinction between productive and problematic fear is conceptually straightforward but practically challenging. Productive fear pertains to real threats, physical or economic, and provokes action that leads to useful responses. In contrast, problematic fear is the kind of fear that, if challenged – shows itself to be unfounded. Nevertheless, our physiological response to problematic fear mimics that to genuinely life-threatening stimuli.
Evolutionary psychologists note that our brains are endowed with ‘prepared fears’: fears that are easily activated because of cognitive wiring from our evolutionary history. This has several management implications.
For early humans, ostracism was a truly life-threatening condition: peer rejection meant that one risked being kicked out of the tribe, typically resulting death through in starvation or exposure to predators and the elements. Today, this ‘prepared fear’ of ostracism leaves us vulnerable to being ineffective at work.
Workplace fears that go undiscussed – and which, indeed, are often believed to be “undiscussable” – is counterproductive and problematic. This stymies innovation, productivity, employee engagement and retention, and often results in a range of operational risks that lurk unrecognized until crisis strikes.
Since the benefits of recognizing and responding appropriately to workplace fears are so substantial, leaders must intentionally seek to surface and manage them, and to inculcate a culture of what Edmonson terms “psychological safety.” In the financial sector, regulators are increasingly testing for this company attribute with a view to supervising risk.