Can't a little fear be a good thing?

“So all this talk about eliminating fear from the workplace is great, but wait a minute," you may ask, "Can’t a little fear be a good thing?” 

“After all, I seem to perform better when I’m on edge and working under pressure!”

“A healthy dose of fear wakes me up and makes me sharper.”

So what about that? Can threats and fear actually be useful? Should we really aim to eliminate ALL fears? 

The fact is that some types of threats are, well, not as threatening to our survival. Some threats are in fact helpful and prompt a useful fear that puts us on our toes and helps us perform.

When we take on new responsibilities at work, for example, or learn a new skill, or present in front of a group, we may experience these challenges with a tolerable level of risk and threat. But these challenges can still trigger the kind of fear response described in the last post.

You know the drill. When you stand up to give a status report or make a proposal in front of your division, for example, you experience a mini-fight or -flight response. You sweat, your heart races a bit, you focus on your notes and on the facial expressions of certain people, you block out other input, and you don’t feel like eating beforehand. Though uncomfortable at the time, this kind of low-grade threat with its helpful fear response can actually happen as we are working to some of our proudest accomplishments.

When I asked people in my research interviews to share an experience of fear at work, some  shared this kind of "helpful" fear situation. They consistently described the discomfort of stepping to their edge, experiencing a low-grade fear, and working through the challenge to accomplish something.

These stories shared some things in common.

·       The individuals chose the fear experience. The threat and fear weren’t being done “to” them; rather, they chose the challenge so they could learn, advance, and contribute. They chose to work through the fear that came with the challenge, and kept a strong sense of agency.

·       The fear lasted for a relatively short time, perhaps a few hours to a few weeks depending on the situation. In high stakes harmful fear situations, the threat and fear that came with it usually went on for months or even years.

·       The situation often took place in the context of a loving workplace with a caring leader or a supportive team. A loving workplace makes it possible for people to safely take on performance risks and face the helpful fears that go with them.

Research interviews showed that caring leaders and teams that are like families put people at ease. They create trust, security, and greater tolerance for the discomfort of performance pressure.  People know they can try, stumble, and safely recover without being rejected. They know, they will be supported if things don't go as well as hoped. And they know others will celebrate with them when they succeed. With this alchemy of performance challenge, helpful fear, and a caring workplace, team members are golden and supported to achieve performance breakthroughs.

So helpful fears that come from performance challenges are not the kind of fears that leaders  and employees should want to eliminate. It's natural to be uncomfortable at work when we step to our edge and face a new challenge. A safe, loving workplace supports us through the discomfort of helpful fear to reach new levels of achievement.

Yes, a little fear, helpful fear, in a loving workplace can be a good thing!

When have you experienced this kind of helpful fear? Have you been part of a team or had a leader supportive of your performance edge?  What was that like? What did it mean to you?

Next up: Harmful Fear: Eliminate it!