Editor's Rating


By Gloria Lombardi

Is dealing with fear the answer to increasing creativity at work? Sheila Keegan, author of ‘The Psychology of Fear in Organizations‘ thinks so.

Fear has penetrated and become inherent in many organisations, particularly following the global economic recession. During the past years of economic downturn, much focus has been given on keeping the business functioning. It has been a time of uncertainty, anxiety and insecurity that led the majority of companies to over-controlling and discouraging risk-taking, while also squashing novel thinking among their workforce. This has inhibited growth and innovation, both at employee and corporate level.

Keegan’s work makes the perfect read for anyone who strives at re-making their working environments more creative and free from dysfunctional productivity. It combines robust literature research with case studies and valuable tips on how to deal with the paralysis caused by fear at work.

As the author puts it: “Fear spreads easily and quickly contaminates a working environment. However, a positive, supportive environment can be equally contagious.”

Indeed, each of us, regardless of the job title, seniority or level, has an influence for good or bad on the colleagues we have contact with. We mutually influence each other in an on-going process. So, how can we, all together, help to encourage an environment free of distressing emotions?

Recognising fear

First of all, we need to recognise that fear is manifesting itself in the context of work. It is crucial to recognise those symptoms and face up to them. Otherwise fear will continue to have a deleterious effect. A number of behaviours are quite telling: presenteeism, poor morale, short-term thinking, blaming others, stealing the ideas of colleagues and not recognising their contributions, having your credibility questioned, obsessing about rules, bullying, and defensiveness.

Effective communication is the lynchpin for beginning to address these issues. The author believes that “by encouraging people to speak up and finding out what they are reluctant to talk about, we have an opportunity to learn how fear prevents all of us from doing our best at work.”


I found particularly interesting how Keegan links a psychologically healthy workplace with creativity. “Our brains need time and rest – sometimes. We need to make time to reflect, to play with ideas, to look at things differently, to merge and challenge our ideas, to elevate or dismiss them.”

However, too often, organisations are stuck in what the author defines as “tramline thinking” – external pressure and lack of time encourages corporations and their staff “to think in linear, mechanistic modes, rather than fostering creative thinking.”

We no longer have time to think. This is a big problem. “Few of us have the luxury of mulling on work issues, thinking about them from different perspective, incubating our thoughts, delaying judgement, sleeping on it.”

Yet, to be really capable of innovating, all of us – leadership included – need to question, improvise, experiment and adapt to emerging situations. Indeed, we need to become comfortable with the fear that comes from confessing that ‘I don’t know’.

“In many spheres of working life, we simply cannot ‘know’. Paradoxically, it is almost impossible nowadays to have up-to-date information because there is so much of it – and it is constantly changing. Making sense of it, analysing, interpreting, connecting, predicting are often what makes information useful, and, as often as not, this requires the complex, ingenious machinations of the brain.”

Fear as an energy source

Another interesting part of the book is where Keegan concentrates on harnessing fear as a stimulus for change. It may be surprising but the author believes that “we can use fear to generate the confidence to experiment.”

This has to do with more easily accepting failure as a part of learning and growing. It is about creating a ‘culture of courage’ by supporting employees to overcome their fears.

Re-humanising the workplace can make a great difference. “Treating employees as human beings rather than just resources to be milked; thinking about and talking with groups of employees within different departments or groups to establish how best they can contribute, rather than defaulting the off-the-peg solutions.”

And, here is where the author hits the nail on the head: “It is about building a shared purpose in which employees can feel confident to challenge their own and each other’s assumptions, and where constructive feedback is accepted as part of the learning.”

Developing resilience

Another intriguing argument that Keegan makes is around building up resilience on individual, team and organisational level. Its value can be considerable, especially when working under stressful conditions.

“Teaching resilience is one route towards building stronger and more resourceful workforces and, equally, it is a way in which individual employees can feel better resourced and able to cope in challenging workplaces.”

In fact, the author links up increased resilience with optimism, persistence, and positivity – all elements that are incredibly important when managing an organisation back to health.

Trust me!

However, resilience is not enough in situations where interpersonal relationships are difficult. What we need is trust. This matters, a lot.

“Trust can make the difference between success and failure in an organisation. Without mutual trust, organisations and their employees will struggle.”

An organisation that is full of fear and distrust, or anger or suspicion will never thrive. “It may survive for a while as contracts, greed or power tie employees in, but it is a battle against human nature.”

Why is building trust so important for any business? Because, not only it leads to a happier and more productive workforce, but also greatly impacts on risk-taking and innovation.

The author has no doubts that creating high trust is the only viable option for the future of many organisations. “It is a business necessity. Innovation, in particular, is a risky endeavour, especially for the individuals who are actively involved in it. To experiment, fail and persevere with no guarantee of success, individuals need to feel the confidence of a trusting organisation to back them up.”

I also prize Keegan for her ability to describes how building trust can all start by examining our own behaviour.

Indeed, it can be tough. Yet, as all things in life, it is achievable through conscious effort and commitment. “We can start by trying as best we can do to be open, cooperative and respectful with our colleagues, as we would in situations outside work.

“We need to regularly remind ourselves of what sort of working environment we want and then individually and collaboratively try to create it. I believe that most of us want to feel useful, productive and cooperative.”

Can we argue against that? When we feel trusted and fearless we get things done more easily, and with a sense of satisfaction, empowerment and achievement that almost nothing else can equal.

This article originally appeared on simply-communicate