Why Leaders Should Shine a Light on Fear

If your team is unsettled by anxiety, you should acknowledge the perceived threats to help it regain its focus.

fearful businessman
Credit: shutterstock

As a leader of technology teams, I've seen a lot of fear in the eyes of employees. Every day, companies outsource entire departments overseas. Every minute, hard-earned technology skills become obsolete. And every second, senior leadership cancels a major project and disperses a team.

I recall an especially memorable team meeting when fear stalked the room. A critical project had fallen badly behind schedule, and I needed everyone's full attention. When I walked into the room where the team was assembled, the anxiety and apprehension was palpable. "What's going on, guys?" I asked. One of them finally said, "We just heard that the company's profits were down 37 percent last quarter. Does that mean there will be layoffs?"

Acknowledge the Threats

Fear of losing their jobs had infected and demoralized the team members. I knew our CEO was talking about layoffs, so I met the fear head-on. I said, "Okay, people. The possibility of layoffs is real, so take it seriously. But there's nothing imminent." Did substantiating their fear create more worry? No. Why didn't I just say, "Forget about it and concentrate on this project?" Because I knew that acknowledging a potential threat brings it into everyone's consciousness and makes it far less distracting.

Our emotional system, the region of the brain called the amygdala in particular, continuously scans our surroundings for potential threats and then warns our conscious mind when it detects one. It's part of our survival instinct. We're always subconsciously looking for clues that signal danger. Someone around us may casually say "outsourcing" or "layoffs"” and our amygdala sends a warning that puts our body on red alert. "Danger! Danger! You will lose your job!" If our conscious mind ignores or denies the clamor, our emotional system keeps sounding the alarm. This keeps our amygdala so active that we can scarcely concentrate on anything else.

Not only does the amygdala warn us of possible danger, it also heavily influences our thinking. If we detect a looming threat, our amygdala fires up, keeping us highly aroused until we determine the true nature of the threat. It can shift our entire brain into withdrawal mode, where we can think of nothing else. This can cause us to look at the world through a distorted lens that interprets every ambiguous event as a possible danger. We hear that a large customer isn't happy with our service and jump to the conclusion that we're going to lose our jobs.

Regain the Focus

Acknowledging a threat surfaces it into our conscious mind where we can process it. Once I confirmed everyone's suspicion that bad news could arrive at any time, their conscious minds agreed they could do nothing about that threat but that they could do something about the work at hand. According to Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist and Professor of Ethical Leadership at New York University's Stern School of Business, if our conscious mind acknowledges the threat and either takes precautionary action or decides to let it slide, our amygdala can take a break and stop sounding the alarm. When the team sees the situation through a clearer lens, they can get back to work.

If I had tried to squelch the conversation and refocus the team on the troubled project, I would have done nothing to reduce its fear. The members would have bottled it up inside, where it would only keep festering. Those internal warning bells would keep clanging. Work would grind to a halt. We'd end up with a failed project and pink slips for the entire team.

Although acknowledging a threat does not make it go away, it does allow room for a conscious intention to stop worrying about it now and resolve it later. It tells our emotional system to chill out. If necessary, we'll get hot about it later.

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