Culture Killers: Fear (Part 1)

Fear in the Workplace: What Are We So Afraid Of?

Fear. It’s one of the most powerful emotions we experience daily.

In fact, from the time you woke up to the time you got to work, you overcame some kind of fear (however small) just to be here. Just to show up.

We fear for how the day will play out. We worry about how we’re presenting ourselves. We stress about our job performance. We wonder if we’re doing enough to help our loved ones thrive.

It’s all fear. And as long as we’re human, fear is going to be part of the experience.

At heart, we’re afraid of not having enough.

Our fears—particularly in the workplace—are little derivations of our survival instinct. Many of us may not stress a ton about having enough to eat today, but we still carry with us a fear instinct, the anxiety-inducing question: Am I going to have enough?

When our survival instinct meets the workplace, the questions become: Am I making enough money? Am I successful enough? Am I respected enough? Is my job threatened?  

This is where we start to see a major, fear-based culture killer surface: unhealthy competition.

Maybe we withhold a piece of information from a coworker to protect our own path toward advancement. As bosses, maybe we don’t fully nurture talented employees because we’re worried they’ll leave or succeed beyond us.

It’s a common toxic belief in workplaces: that someone else’s success creates a deficit for me.

This reactive belief, nurtured in isolation, kills cultures.

On the other hand, we could hit pause on our fear reactions and start to consider how our success depends on others. Those same coworkers we feel competitive animosity toward are the people we need to ultimately succeed. The company’s success depends on everyone. When you succeed, it’s good for the company, which is good for me, too.  

This kind of interdependence feels vulnerable. (We talk more about this in the post about gratitude mindset.) The reason it feels so vulnerable to depend on, and celebrate, one another is because we all face huge unknowns.

We don’t know whether or not we’ll succeed as we hope. We don’t know the future of our jobs or our companies. And the worst thing we can do is let our imaginations go wild with fear-inducing scenarios.

I recently heard a great reminder from Claude Silver about fear’s power dynamic: You’re on a bus. Fear is on the bus with you. The question is, are you driving?

If you want to start curing your own fears about not ‘getting enough’ in the workplace, one of the best ways to start is by taking back your imagination.

  • Imagine a team where each person looks at the coworker beside them and sees a gift: a resource, an advocate, and a person to encourage.

  • Instead of playing out conflict scenarios in your mind, imagine what it would be like to push through fear and have the courage to start a conversation—deploying curiosity and empathetic listening while you do.

  • Imagine feeling that fear response about the big client, or the end of year review, and being able to say this:

I don’t know how this will turn out, but I know that I’m a valuable human being. Yes, imperfect as well, but trying my best.

And that is enough.


NEXT WEEK: Fear, Part 2

As our Culture Killers series continues, we’ll dive into courageous workplace culture—the culture-building actions we can take to work against fear and toward the thriving of everyone in the workplace.

Counterstories is a blog collaboration between conflict resolution specialist Steve Beck and writer/editor Rachael Schmid. If you have a powerful story of forgiveness or peacemaking (or just want to share your thoughts on this post), we’d love to hear from you. Reach out at