All We Have to Fear

Fran S.

Fran S.

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We have too much fear in our workplaces. As human beings, our emotional, cognitive and psychological attention is drawn to threats. Things that cause us to perceive that our well-being is in danger spark physiological and neurological processes that help us protect ourselves. Small threats cause us to secrete cortisol and adrenaline and to experience enough stress to motivate us to tackle the issue (fight) or to avoid it (flight.) In that way, we are well equipped to take the steps that preserve our safety and well being.

At work, however, our ability to respond to the threat is, by definition, compromised. If our livelihood is at stake, fighting the source of threat may be hampered by our need to keep our job. Our ability to flee the source of threat is compromised by career and financial necessities. Because of this, too many people are consistently afraid at work and unable to act to find or create safety for themselves.

What are we afraid of? 

According to Amy Edmonson, Harvard scholar and expert on the subject of psychological safety in the workplace, we are afraid of speaking up or speaking out when something has gone wrong. In one of her studies, 85 percent of respondents indicated they had observed an important problem in the workplace and not raised it to their boss because they were afraid. Contemplate, if you will, the costs associated with such fear. A mistake in the budget unreported can lead to disastrous financial miscalculations. A flaw in a process can lead to hundreds of hours of workarounds and erroneous outcomes. A broken piece of machinery or toxic misconduct unreported can foreshadow risk to health and safety.

Interestingly, it is not just the problems that people keep to themselves. Edmonson’s work shows that a significant percentage of workers indicate they have withheld suggestions or ideas about how to improve things for fear they’d be seen as a “pot-stirrer,” showing someone else up, or attempting to disrupt the status quo.

If people are afraid to speak truth about small problems, opportunities for improvement and simple, observable phenomenon, one can imagine the fear of speaking up about serious problems, such as harassment or bullying.

Creating psychological safety is a leadership imperative. Research shows that there are four fundamental conditions essential to reducing fear in the workplace

  • Employee voice: conditions that make it safe for employees to speak authentically and to trust they will be listened to and taken seriously

  • Errors and Mistakes are Part of Learning:  By sharing errors and mistakes, the organization understands it is finding ways to be better, and there is no stigma attached to errors

  • Authenticity: There is no need to hide, alter, assimilate or disguise any part of oneself

  • Predictability and Fairness: There is faith the employer will not make arbitrary decisions that harm employees.

Psychological safety improves every time a leader asks a question and truly listens to the answer, especially when that leader demonstrates humility and learning themselves. Psychological safety improves when errors are neutrally shared and mined for improvement strategies. 

Psychological safety improves when feedback is constructive, timely and offered in the framework of desiring the best for the person getting the feedback. Small gestures, new habits and stated values can make a tremendous difference in the lives of employees. Most importantly, once employees trust that they are safe, if something happens that jeopardizes that safety, such as attempts to bully or harass, they will feel safe raising a concern when it is early enough to address the conduct.


Fran S.

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