Business and the Fear Factor

Business and the Fear FactorBusinesses have a multitude of structures open to them as well as a variety of leadership and management styles; both can be affected by the size and nature of the work which the organisation undertakes. The impact of structure and style on business has been extensively researched and there are correlations relating to the direct affect they can have upon employees and performance.

Leadership and hierarchy are synonymous with organisational behaviour; the intimacy between the two is based on the historical assumption that a good leader knows what is best for everyone, correlating strong leadership to forcefulness and decisiveness. For people to succeed in this environment, acceptance of their position as a subordinate becomes the natural order, and is entrenched as a business norm.

Some modern business have moved away from this simplistic view of leadership towards a more collaborative approach of managing, yet there are still residuals of authoritarianism lurking in the shadows of business practice, resulting in uncomfortable organisational environments, and negatively charged emotions leading to fear, which according to new research impacts directly on staff and potential business performance.

The impact of fear upon the human body can result in some strange effects, and depending upon how it is perceived, fear can actually destroy cognitive power. In experiments where negatively charged emotions are induced, such as interactions with a boss you are scared of, stress hormones can lead to a sympathetic nervous response, which can result in flight or fight, an instinctive physiological response to a threatening situation that readies the individual either to resist forcibly or run away.

However, it should be noted that this does not always lead to a negative outcome. If we are moderately stimulated from such an experience, we can respond in a challenge mode, which means we operate at our cognitive peak. Nevertheless, if we do not feel that we have the ability or resources to deal with the situation, we move into a threat mode, and our cognitive functioning can close down as blood flow is redirected from the brain to the limbs in preparation for a flight or fight response.

It may be irrational, but fear of something, such as pain or losing a job, does strange things to the decision making process.


The Fear Factor
US president Roosevelt, during his 1933 inauguration address, told citizens that they had “nothing to fear but fear itself”. He argued that the dilapidating affect of anxiety, born of the Great Depression, was gripping the country creating a barrier to progress and innovation. Latterly, science has confirmed Roosevelt’s comments, showing that fear destroys cognitive power.

Professor Gregory Berns, director of the Centre of Neuropolicy at Emory University in Atlanta, conducted an experiment based upon the Skinner Box experiment (a clear cell designed to test animals’ responses to stimuli). The results yielded some interesting findings, humans prefer actual pain to the thought of receiving pain. According to Berns, given the choice, almost everyone preferred to expedite the shock rather than wait for it. Furthermore, the anticipation of something unpleasant happening leads us to make choices that are so irrational as to be completely stupid.


Fighting Fear in the Workplace
There is a need in modern business for managers to be more aware of the impact of workplace stressors and the implications they have for the organisation, whether the worry is about losing a job, increased role function due to streamlining, or zero-hour contracts, issues cannot be ignored, but can be somewhat alleviated if a more proactive work environment is cultivated, which advocates:

  • Keeping it clear: To often businesses operate within the confines of smoke screens, cultivating a culture of mistrust, feeding the rumour mill. It is imperative that communication is upfront, clear and responsive. If there is bad news, managers need to inform staff to alleviate potential worries.
  • Seeking Feedback: Creating a culture within the workforce where you actively seek out employee’s questions, provide a safe arena to voice concerns, will go a long way to settle fears and reassure staff.
  • Accepting Criticism: Being a reflective practitioner is a key skill within the professional managerial remit. The ability to listen to, and respond in a positive productive manner to challenging feedback will encourage employee engagement, cultivating an environment where employees feel they can speak in an open and honest way without fear of reprisal.


Ruling with a rod of iron and through fear, will not yield positive and productive outcomes for anyone concerned, and certainly not for the business as a whole. We need to embark on a more enlightened approach to management and leadership, with a willingness to be open to our own limitations and our need for professional development.


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“Arms Up Character Shows Shock And Surprise” image courtesy of Stuart Miles at

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