“Fear is the main source of superstition, and one of the main sources of cruelty. To conquer fear is the beginning of wisdom.”

— Bertrand Russell

“Ignorance is the parent of fear.”

— Herman Melville

“We are more often frightened than hurt; and we suffer more from imagination than from reality.”

— Seneca

“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

— Franklin D. Roosevelt

“Fear defeats more people than any other one thing in the world.”

— Ralph Waldo Emerson

“There are very few monsters who warrant the fear we have of them.”

— Andre Gide

“No power so effectually robs the mind of all its powers of acting and reasoning as fear.”

— Edmund Burke

What is “fear”?

Most of us do the “fear” emotion quite often. Is this good or bad? What exactly is “fear”? Paul Ekman has one of the better definitions that I have found:

“Fear is one of the seven universal emotions experienced by everyone around the world. Fear arises with the threat of harm, either physical, emotional, or psychological, real or imagined. While traditionally considered a “negative” emotion, fear actually serves an important role in keeping us safe as it mobilizes us to cope with potential danger.”

Fear is an emotion that helps protect us – alerts us to potential danger and prepares us to deal with it. Feeling fear is natural and vital – a warning that cautions us to be careful. Whatever “careful” means.

Merriam-Webster defines fear more broadly as:

“Fear, dread, fright, alarm, panic, terror, trepidation mean painful agitation in the presence or anticipation of danger. Fear is the most general term and implies anxiety and usually loss of courage.”

Loss of courage? I don’t believe so. And, as the nice fear-scale diagram below illustrates, “anxiety” is simply a degree of fear somewhere between “trepidation” and “terror”. This scale is actually quite helpful in that it defines the generic term “fear” in degrees that make sense to most of us.

Okay, so we have a working idea for what fear is. What can we do about it?

Scale of fear
Source: Atlas of Emotions

Fear is real even if the cause(s) may not be

Fear in itself is certainly real – hardwired into the human machinery and consciousness, and reinforced by group thought and behavior. Once established, it is almost impossible to remove. It is a fact, part of our human reality.

The cause of fears on the other hand can very often be unfounded, irrational, or both. Cause quite often cannot even be identified. At times, the cause is readily apparent but the cause itself is so effective that it cannot be stopped or even reduced. Kind of a mental black-death plague.

Our business world of fear consists of the collective fears of the people in each organization. Such fears may be common across many organizations while others may be unique and quite localized. There are no fear removal tools or procedures that I have been able to locate.

Most businesses deal in some manner daily with their particular set of active, substantial fears. Denying their existence does not work. Encouraging folks not to be afraid does not work. Ordering them not to be fearful does not work and probably just reinforces existing fear levels.

Good fear and bad fear

Fear is typically real but not rational. Some fears are good; some are bad. I believe that fear is neutral – it’s how we channel it that makes it good or bad. Fears can be good and they can be harmful. It depends on how we respond to them. In the end, fear is just another type of motivation. It’s not as pleasant as enthusiasm or mania, but it pushes you to take action on some things and to avoid others, just as all motivations do. What matters with motivation is what you apply it to.

Basically, healthy fear alerts us when something is, or may be, wrong. An unhealthy fear is a response to an imagined danger that isn’t real.

Fear behaviors

It seems that our response to fear is what truly matters, not the fear itself. Fear is an alarm bell that motivates us to act, which is vital for survival. Our degree of fear may be way off the mark in reality – great fear when the actual danger is small, or minor fear when the actual danger is great.

This suggests that a rational response to any significant fear is to establish as quickly as possible the reality and seriousness of the danger involved.

Most critters may be limited to fight, flight, or immobility responses but us human critters can do a lot better. Note here that “immobility” refers mainly to freezing or inaction rather than the purely human “joy of fear” – enjoyment from being scared. Psychology Today notes that:

“When we get scared, we experience a rush of adrenaline and a release of endorphins and dopamine. The biochemical rush can result in a pleasure-filled, opioid-like sense of euphoria.”.

Better yet, if others share your fear, there can be a sense of togetherness, as in “we’re all in this together”. Real, justified fear however is rarely joyful or fun.

Rather than being a critter and consider just fight or flight responses, we should start with an assessment of the perceived threat. Real or not? Potential damage major or minor? Options for avoidance or mitigation?

Managing fear as a manager

You can quickly see here that a two-step process is involved. First step is assessing the threat or at least its current perception. The second step, based on what we figure out in the first step, aims at figuring out what we can do about it.

Our current (and possibly forever) fear of COVID is an excellent case in point. It has caused enormous disruptions, many flowing from a “ready-fire-aim” type of instinctive fear-response that is so popular today. Justification aside, the reality is that the COVID fear exists, is widespread, and is very deep in many people.

Telling such folks “not to be afraid” or confronting them with “facts” simply won’t work. There are too many sources of information making every effort to persuade them otherwise.

Even if you, personally and as a manager or leader, believe and can offer facts to show that this fear is “irrational”, good luck trying to convince your people that you are right and the majority “out there” is wrong.

This now deep-rooted fear is a major challenge in managing or leading today.

Our brains are hard-wired for fear

BrainFacts.org states that:

“Whether it’s clowns, air travel, or public speaking, mostly we learn to be afraid. Even so, our brains are hardwired for fear — it helps us identify and avoid threats to our safety. The key node in our fear wiring is the amygdala, a paired, almond-shaped structure deep within the brain involved in emotion and memory.”.

Great. Not only do we respond to situations – irrationally in many cases – with fear but the emotion itself is built-in, instinctive. This makes managing in an environment of pervasive fear really difficult.

Facts, reasons, arguments – normal managing stuff – won’t work.

What to do?

Fear reduction using “safe places”

People may eventually get over their fear but they may not – at least not in any practical time frame. You may have to deal long term with folks who are conditioned to fear.

If you can’t get rid of fear, or expect fear to go away eventually, the best you can do is to address it head-on as a new business environmental challenge. This requires some ideas on actions that can create perceived “safe spaces or places”.

Let’s think about this in the context of COVID-fear. Various authorities have already done this to a great extent with mask mandates, distancing, facility population limits, frequent disinfecting of surfaces, and lately, experimental drug injections. No matter what our personal beliefs may be about the efficacy of these, the fact is that they “work”. That is, people really do feel safer with these practices in place.

Again, COVID-fear is a fact of life today. Widespread and deep. Not going away any time soon. This means accommodating as a relatively permanent business feature the set of steps that are making the majority feel safer. It does not matter if they are actually safer, or maybe even less safe. What matters is that they truly feel safer. This is a management reality today.

How much “safe” is too much?

Being “safe” today is pretty expensive in many cases. Making your people feel safe probably varies a great deal across your business. This means that different degrees of “safe” will be adequate in different areas so you need some way to assess safety perceptions from place to place. You sure don’t want to overdo safety where it is not perceived by locals as fully necessary.

My suggestion is to test perceptions routinely, probably via input from a person or two in each area that seems to be plugged into the majority, feeling-wise. Try out different levels of “safe” across the business to see what gives the most safe feelings at the least cost.

Fear reduction using socialization

Another productive instinct among us humans is a strong need for socialization. Masks and distancing mess with this instinct but you may be able to create opportunities for social interactions despite the current obstacles.

Perhaps you could task a few people to motivate and arrange for gatherings within the latest rules for purposes of normal human communication. Everyone in a group, for example, might be given coffee or a soft drink (at the very least) so masks could be dropped during the probably brief gatherings.

People sharing concerns and thoughts is nearly always constructive, at least in a business setting. It may well turn out that many fears can be reduced significantly by peer communication. “You shall not fear” orders from above will likely not work as well.

Fear reduction using examples

Imitation is yet another instinct-based arrow in our fear-reduction quiver. People like to copy others with whom they agree, admire, or like. This suggests to me that creating examples of, say, lower cost but effective measures of dealing with COVID threats might attract others to emulate.

You might set up a facility that has a formal distancing structure according to whatever rules are presently in effect but an informal interaction process that allows normal distancing for short intervals. There must be some better ideas out there somewhere but you surely get the picture here.

Note that none of these deal directly with the threat itself but only with the fear that the perceived threat has caused. Building strategies around human instincts can be very effective since the response mechanisms are already built in.

Bottom line:

Fear is a fundamental aspect of humanity and thus of business life. It may be well-founded but it is often irrational or cause-indeterminate. It can rarely be removed but it can be mitigated to varying degrees. Recent COVID fear has brought this difficult challenge to the forefront of almost every business and organization.

Fear among humanity is such an important topic that Wikipedia has some extensive words and references on its behavioral aspects:

Fear behavior
Although fear behavior varies from species to species, it is often divided into two main categories; namely, avoidance/flight and immobility. To these, different researchers have added different categories, such as threat display and attack, protective responses (including startle and looming responses), defensive burying, and social responses (including alarm vocalizations and submission). Finally, immobility is often divided into freezing and tonic immobility.”

“The decision as to which particular fear behavior to perform is determined by the level of fear as well as the specific context, such as environmental characteristics (escape route present, distance to refuge), the presence of a discrete and localized threat, the distance between threat and subject, threat characteristics (speed, size, directness of approach), the characteristics of the subject under threat (size, physical condition, speed, degree of crypsis, protective morphological structures), social conditions (group size), and the amount of experience with the type of the threat.”

Fear as an emotion is further elaborated:

“Fear is an emotion induced by perceived danger or threat, which causes physiological changes and ultimately behavioral changes, such as mounting an aggressive response or fleeing the threat. Fear in human beings may occur in response to a certain stimulus occurring in the present, or in anticipation or expectation of a future threat perceived as a risk to oneself. The fear response arises from the perception of danger leading to confrontation with or escape from/avoiding the threat (also known as the fight-or-flight response), which in extreme cases of fear (horror and terror) can be a freeze response or paralysis.”

“In humans and other animals, fear is modulated by the process of cognition and learning. Thus, fear is judged as rational or appropriate and irrational or inappropriate. An irrational fear is called a phobia.”

“Fear is closely related to the emotion anxiety, which occurs as the result of threats that are perceived to be uncontrollable or unavoidable.[1] The fear response serves survival by engendering appropriate behavioral responses, so it has been preserved throughout evolution.[2] Sociological and organizational research also suggests that individuals’ fears are not solely dependent on their nature but are also shaped by their social relations and culture, which guide their understanding of when and how much fear to feel.”

As drnorthrup.com explains in “Why Fear Is So Damaging To Your Health”, fear is a very big problem for individuals, not just businesses:

“The biochemical state that fear creates in your body adversely affects your immunity and increases your susceptibility to viruses and bacteria that are all around you. For example, most people have the bacterium that causes pneumonia in their respiratory system at all times, but it stays in check until your vibration is lowered in some way. Here’s how fear lowers your immunity:”

“1. Fear shuts down your gut. When you experience fear, your body releases stress hormones that slow, or shut down, bodily functions that you do not immediately need for survival. This includes your gut where most of your immune system resides.”

“2. Fear short-circuits your brain. The flow of stress hormones creates an overactive mind by flooding the amygdala portion of your brain. This makes you unable to think rationally as you react to signals sent from your amygdala. When in this overactive state, your brain perceives events as negative and stores all of the details surrounding the perceived danger—including sights, sounds, odors, time of day, weather, and so on—as negative memories. Later, those same sights, sounds, and other details can trigger fear by bringing back the initial memory; in some cases, you may feel afraid without consciously knowing why. This can lead to a constant state of fear and anxiety or even PTSD. Fear can also impair formation of long-term memories and cause damage to certain parts of your brain, such as the hippocampus. Finally, fear can interrupt processes in your brain that allow you to regulate emotions.”

“3. Fear can lead to chronic health problems. Living in a constant state of fear can cause gastrointestinal issues, including ulcers and Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). It can increase your risk of cardiovascular damage.  And fear has been associated with decreased fertility, depression, fatigue, and accelerated aging. Fear has even been associated with an increased risk of death—you’ve heard sayings such as “She worried herself to death,” haven’t you?”

“4. Fear attracts what you fear most.  All emotions including fear are energy. When you let fear run your life, you attract to you more of whatever it is that you are afraid of. If you’re afraid of illness, you will attract it. If you’re afraid of being alone, you will be alone for as long as it takes to get over that fear. If you’re afraid to die, you will never live fully and joyfully.”

Nicole Lipkin writing in Forbes offers some simple but likely effective ways to combat fear and anxiety: “Managing Fear And Anxiety As The World Reopens”:

Pinpoint The Threat, Say It Out Loud, And Then Analyze It. Fear likes to compound itself until it grows large and amorphous, where the parameters are blurred and it has no beginning or end. If you can pinpoint the specific threat you are feeling, you can then say “I am afraid of [fill in the blank].” Naming it will help lessen its intensity because you have acknowledged it. Unacknowledged fear runs rampant in the mind. Acknowledging fear doesn’t make it disappear immediately but it can halt it while you deal with it. Once you pinpoint the specific threat you are feeling, you can then analyze it. Is it rational? Is it irrational? If it’s rational, maybe something can be done to combat it. If you conclude it’s irrational, hopefully that will help lessen its power. Ignorance exacerbates fear. If we can clear away the ignorance the fear will dissolve with it.”

Talk To Others. Communicate, communicate, communicate. When you share your fear and anxiety with others who might feel the same, everyone feels less isolated. You will see that you are not the only one who feels what you are feeling and this can help assuage the fear and anxiety. Talking to others also helps the fearful and anxious thoughts from multiplying and looping. When you isolate, the thoughts do not have an outlet so they can potentially keep spinning and spinning like an avalanche, picking up steam as they roll along. As their momentum grows, so does your belief in them because you haven’t allowed in alternative perspectives or points of view.”

Recognize That Your Fear Can Cause A Domino Effect. Emotional contagion spreads like wildfire. Your fear will infect others, giving rise to more and more fear. When you are a member of a larger group it is important to keep the mental health of the group in mind. If you can prevent spreading your fear throughout your organization, that is recommended. I do not recommend bottling up anger or sadness, so if you are consumed with fear and cannot quell it on your own, get professional help. Talking it out with a therapist or coach will do wonders to release the fear and feel better.”

Try To Stay In The Moment, Where Everything Is OK. Fear is nourished by “what if” outcomes, which is another way of saying “the future.” Fear wants you to think about all the bad things that could be if x, y, and z were to happen. If you stay focused on the very moment you’re living, fear will not have a canvas to express itself. Fear needs you to cling to the future or it has no outlet to express itself. Be in the present moment as much as possible. Every time you catch your mind wandering, bring it back to the present. Keep doing this repeatedly to keep fear at bay.”