Desensitizing Your Team to Fear

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Fear-and-Negativity-copyI remember the day a colleague plodded into my team meeting and moaned “John Price has just been appointed CEO”.  Our entire team became paralyzed with fear. We knew the leaders of our company’s three divisions, who always competed more than cooperated, had been vying for the open CEO spot. Price was from the “other” division, our rivals, and openly didn’t like our group. Now he was going to have power over us. This couldn’t be good. Our minds went wild with scenarios that had him replacing us with “his” people or re-allocating our funding to “his” division.

It was the worst time for this to be happening. We were implementing a huge upgrade to our computer systems, and if we didn’t get it right, Price would have lots of ammunition to replace us. But our focus was hijacked. Our team regularly used a stress management technique to transform negative emotions, and that usually worked, but this time the fear of uncertainty was too consuming. We needed special help.

We needed to desensitize ourselves to this fear. So we had a few sessions where we talked about what we feared the most, the worst-case scenario, and then we let ourselves really feel it. We were careful not to exaggerate, so when someone said “he could shut our entire division down”, we corrected that thinking and made sure we were realistic. But the most important thing we did was give ourselves permission to feel the fear intensely for about ten minutes. We conjured up the images of having our projects cancelled and our positions eliminated, letting ourselves experience the full force of the gut wrenching fear. Then when the ten minutes were up, we used our stress management technique to shift into positivity. Letting ourselves feel the fear helped it dissipate so we could move on and do our best work, and if fearful thoughts re-surfaced later, we joked that we’d save them for the next “fear session”.

If you’re skeptical of this, try it for yourself before you try it with your team. Make sure you first know how to self-manage your own emotions, so you can shift out of the fear. Then take your worst fear and allow yourself to feel it deeply. Pay attention to where you feel it in your body and lose the story line. For example, if your biggest fear is bankruptcy, feel the fear and negativity of it without the story line of how you got into the situation or how you’re going to fix it. Holding onto the story line will keep your cognitive mind engaged and not allow the full emotion to be felt. As you feel the fear intensely, you’ll likely notice that it begins to dissipate.

Dealing with fear in this manner can be much more effective than cognitively handling it. Cognitive behaviorists would say the trick to reducing fear is to change your thinking, replacing errors in thinking with more realistic thoughts. But the reality is there are very logical reasons to be afraid in modern business environments. There’s lots of uncertainty, so teams need techniques that go beyond cognitive reasoning. They need techniques that work directly at the emotional level. This particular technique is a form of fear extinction therapy that has been shown to help desensitize people to fear during psychotherapy.

As we learn more from neuroscience about the incredible power of group emotions, we see reasons to adopt techniques beyond the ordinary. For more on shaping team emotions to increase creativity and performance, including research references, get notified of the upcoming book Primal Teams: Harnessing the Incredible Power of Group Energy or sign up for a monthly summary of articles.


About the Author:

Jackie Barretta is a thought leader sharing ideas on how to create a more just and peaceful world. She is also a CIO, and in this role she has led large organizations with hundreds of employees through challenging times and major transformations.
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  1. David Mullin  February 11, 2013

    Underlying is typically an absence of trust; team members who are not open about weaknesses and mistakes. Of course, fear is great if the so-called leader intends to manifest dispassionate debates and guarded comments. Consider that this type of behaviour might often comes out of situations where leadership skills are assumed based on positional power.

  2. Roland Silverio  February 11, 2013

    When leaders are able to maintain composure, stay under control and focused on that we are able to have positive impact on…. well you know how that goes. Thanks for this!

  3. Glen Fahs  February 19, 2013

    We seem to agree, fear is dangerous but caution is wise. We don’t need to close our eyes to worst case scenarios to examine risk-benefit odds. By talking about what we hope will never happen, we make it less scary, but take precautions where appropriate to prevent it. I think of the NASA scientists who knew about the Challenger Disaster but still didn’t face the possibility that the foam coming off the space craft on re-entry could lead to death and destruction. If a crowd of scientists forgets, anyone can. I am preparing for a 9.0 earthquake myself.

  4. Joe Lauletta  March 13, 2013


    I like what you wrote. i agree that emotional intelligence plays a major role in what makes us do what we do; yet, EI, Mindfulness, Distress Tolerance (there are many terms to relate to managing our persona). Yet, it is very difficult for us to take the journey to overcome our fears, emotions, etc.

    Wouldn’t it be great if a grp of OD practitioners (say whom specialize in AI, EI or maybe even psychoanalysis) would mediate a mtg @ the white house and spread some seeds of graciousness. Imagine what that would look like. (I wonder if those seeds of change would grow?)

    Anyways, a good book to read to encourage individuals to look into themselves is:

    Brantley, J. (2003). Calming your anxious mind: How mindfulness and compassion can free you from anxiety, fear, and panic. Oakland: New Harbinger Publications.

    Check out Ch 8.

  5. Michelle Downey  March 13, 2013

    Uncertain times may lead to uncertainty in orgs and potential employee emotions such as fear and anxiety.

    Without accounting for the moderating factor of the organization’s culture, why not cast a larger net toward the expression of all emotions?

    Check out Amy Edmondsen’s Psychological Safety in Teams and other related writing about emotional safety.


  6. Judith Bond  March 13, 2013

    As a trained cognitive therapist, coach and motivational interviewer as well as I/O psychologist I find this article very interesting. In fact I agree that today’s business environment requires a healthy amount of fear- acknowledging it as well- and developing strategies for dealing with potential problems. Fear is a great motivator as well.

  7. John Myles-Black  March 13, 2013

    My technique for reducing fear in a group is to directly speak with those inolved about those fears. With this done and brought on the table, we have an additional facet to the communication and an additional aspect to the action plans. There are individual profiles, team profiles and divisional profiles as to what three aspects are important for the individual/group.

    I look at the following points (they are not from me and I have no citation):

    In a change situation the involved feel a loss of:
    a. Relationships: peers, networks, trusted leaders, leam members, etc
    b. Structure: schedules, routines, roles & responsibilities, procedures
    c. Environment: physical space, status symbols, expertise, scope of power
    d. Meaning: Identity, purpose of working with the organisation, understand the “rules”
    e. Control: Scope of influence and control over my job and getting things done
    f. Future: vision and mission of the organisation, hopes and dreams for the future


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