Why Leaders Should Shine a Light on Fear

Written by:

Fearful BusinessmanAs 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% last quarter. Does that mean there will be layoffs?”

Acknowledge the Threats

Fear of losing their jobs had infected and demoralized the team. 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. Let’s talk about it.” 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 job.

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 their fear. They 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.

Originally posted on CIO.com at http://bit.ly/1yLXxwP


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.


  1. Janine Moon  February 22, 2015

    Great article, Jackie…and acknowledging the elephant in the room is (likely) only one of many fears that contribute to lost focus. The more people can learn how their brains make them fearful (and why), and how to examine their thought patterns, the more effective workers and organizations will be.

  2. Edward Lewellen  February 22, 2015

    Thanks, Jackie! You write great articles with actionable information. I recently put together a presentation for an international organization on adapting to change. Fear is a part of change because of the unknown and because of past experiences that words like “change”, “layoffs”, “termination”, and others elicit. In that presentation I discuss the 4 choices people can make when they face fear; flee it, forget it, fight it, or face it. The first three cause a person to become a victim, the last is where they can find growth and personal power. Change (and the fear that accompanies it) is like air; it’s all around you and you can’t live without it. Once a person understands that, they create the power to choose how they will respond. The last thing I want to share is the ability to separate your Identity from the roles you play in life. Many, many people become what they do and forget who they are. Our roles are flexible and fluid and can accept change. At the same time, when a person knows their real Identity, they can feel stable and safe. Facing change and fear from their Identity is a position of strength, which allows their roles to accept the change and grow and change with it.

  3. Rochele Hirsch  February 22, 2015

    At the root of fears are subconscious “hardwired beliefs” such as “I am unprotected; I am unrecognized; I am nothing to them.” In my transformation work with individuals, I find that these beliefs are there at the very beginning … at conception. The beliefs are not our fault — yet they shape our experience of “how life is,” and drive our reactions (and stress) to avoid these beliefs “coming true.” The saying “greatest strength is also greatest weakness” is manifested because of these hardwired beliefs.

    My contribution is to support a person in identifying and transforming those beliefs. Transformation results in their instinctive reactions being different, more aligned with new beliefs such as “I am safe; I am willing to allow safety in my life.” This quality is similar to those who have had an NDE (Near Death Experience). They no longer fear death. Being WILLING TO BE SAFE is a very different and more powerful stance in life from being willing to protect yourself. Unless the hardwired beliefs are transformed, the person is left having to COPE with each situation … which is certainly possible, and continues the innate stress. But — “whatever doesn’t outright kill you — makes you stronger.” That is the advantage of good coping … such as what this article beautifully describes.

  4. Les Landes  February 22, 2015

    Fear is the single most toxic condition that can beset an organization’s ability to deliver performance and results – for many reasons. An obvious one is how it causes anxiety and distracts people from doing their work – sometimes to the point of immobilizing them. Perhaps the most underrated downside is the impact it has on communication. Where there is fear there is no trust. Where there is no trust, there is no truth. Where there is no truth, there is no reliable information. And where there is no reliable information, organizations eventually disintegrate. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure that out, and yet for some incomprehensible reason, we still have managers who believe that fear and intimidation are legitimate tools to keep people in line and produce results. They often get those views reinforced because people typically will do what’s required of them to keep their jobs. But that’s all. Extra effort is non-existent, which invariably leads to mediocrity and eventual obsolescence. To put it another, they get what they deserve.

  5. Timothy Sroka  June 11, 2015




Add a Comment