How workplace fear rots the brain

20 February 2015 -


Leading with an iron fist is the last thing that will get the best out of your staff – and can often translate into bullying in the workplace

Farah Dib

Leadership and hierarchy have a long history of intimacy. The assumed correlation has come from years of associating strong leadership with forcefulness and decisiveness – a good leader knows what is best for everyone. Those who are being led succeed by quietly accepting their subordinacy as the natural order of things.

Some modern businesses have moved away from this simplistic view of leadership, and have incorporated and accepted more collaborative forms of managing, but there are still residues of authoritarianism knocking about. And new research suggests that the consequences of this type of leadership – such as bullying in the workplace – might make for more than just an uncomfortable work environment. In fact, they can have a direct impact on the brainpower of the workforce and, consequently, the success of the business.

But how is this possible? Dr Megan Reitz, who heads the Leadership Experience programme at Ashridge Business School, explains. “Depending on how it’s perceived, fear can destroy cognitive power,” she says.

“We know that during experiences which induce negatively charged emotions – such as a meeting with a boss who you are scared of – our body’s stress hormones can lead to a sympathetic nervous response, which in turn leads to a ‘flight’ or ‘fight’ response.”

This does not always lead to a negative outcome, adds Reitz, but often does. “If we are moderately stimulated from such an experience we can respond in ‘challenge’ mode,” she says, “which means we operate at our cognitive peak.

“However, if we don’t feel we have the resources to deal with the situation, we tip into ‘threat’ mode and our cognitive functioning can close down. Blood flows away from the brain and to our limbs in preparation for a flight or fight.”

If those on the receiving end of a scary boss feel they have the resources to handle the situation, they may still be able to make effective decisions and learn from such experiences. “If, however,” adds Reitz, “they perceive it as threatening and they don’t feel they know how to respond, cognitive processes can really be affected.”

The fear factor

In his 1933 inauguration address, US president Franklin D Roosevelt told his citizens that they had “nothing to fear but fear itself”. Roosevelt argued that the dilapidating effect of anxiety, born of the Great Depression that was gripping the country, would create a barrier to progress and innovation – and would thus itself compromise endeavours to beat the slump. Science backs Roosevelt up. Fear itself destroys cognitive power.

When Professor Gregory Berns, director of the Centre of Neuropolicy at Emory University in Atlanta, conducted an experiment based on the Skinner box (a clear cell designed to test animals’ responses to stimuli) he noted strange results. In Berns’ test, human beings replaced the traditional Skinner box lab rats. The participants were placed inside an MRI scanner, and electrodes – giving unpleasant but not unbearably painful shocks – were attached to the soles of their feet.

It turns out that humans prefer actual pain to the thought of receiving pain. “They had to wait for the shocks,” Berns tells the New York Times. “Every trial began with a statement of how big the shock would be and how long they would have to wait for it: a range of one to almost 30 seconds. For many people, the wait was worse than the shock. Given a choice, almost everyone preferred to expedite the shock rather than wait for it.”

Not only that, but the anticipation of something unpleasant occurring leads us to make choices that are so irrational as to be completely stupid. “Nearly a third feared waiting so much that, when given the chance, they preferred getting a bigger shock right away to waiting for a smaller shock later,” says Berns. “It sounds illogical, but fear – whether of pain or of losing a job – does strange things to decision making.”

Berns’ findings are fascinating, not only because they appear to prove that fear makes us act irrationally, but because of the effects this mentality has on the economy. “When the fear system of the brain is active, exploratory activity and risk-taking are turned off,” he says.

Similarly, monetary loss, or financial gain for that matter, also have an impact on the brain. In the context of the recent financial crisis, Andrew W Lo, Harris & Harris Group Professor of Finance at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Sloan School of Management and director of its Laboratory for Financial Engineering, wrote about how financial gain stimulates the same reward circuitry as cocaine. “In both cases, dopamine is released into the nucleus accumbens,” he says.

On the other hand, the threat or fear of losing money activates a fight or flight mode, similar to what we experience when we are physically attacked. “Adrenaline and cortisol are released in the bloodstream,” Lo says, “which results in elevated heart rate and blood pressure.”

Nick Shaw is a chartered occupational psychologist and consulting director at advisory company CEB. Running teams by fear, he says, is so rarely a net positive that managers that do so might just as well throw money out of the window. “Those that rule through rigid control are jeopardising innovation, staff-productivity levels and ultimately business performance,” he says.

“When used as a management tool, fear and intimidation reduces the willingness of employees to try new things, new approaches, or share new ideas. By not allowing people to explore, creative thinking and innovation is quashed. You can cause unnecessary anxiety, frustration and low morale.”

But the fear factor also has other, perhaps less visible, effects on a business, too. “It restricts the flow of information, data, insights and ideas across the firm,” says Shaw. “It can also perpetuate a blame culture where people are reprimanded for trying something new or different.”

Damage control

Whether real or perceived, fear and job insecurity have a proven impact on behaviour. An employee who thinks their job is at risk is more likely to look for work elsewhere, talk negatively about the organisation and put less effort into the work they are producing for the company. Feeling like there is no future at the company can also tarnish perceptions of other aspects of their work and their relationship with decision-makers and managers.

Add to this symptoms of stress that naturally emerge in these situations and you have an unengaged and disgruntled workforce that is unlikely to do more than is strictly necessary, and very likely to leave when the first opportunity arises. “You can’t rid yourself of fear in the workplace,” says Reitz. “Where there are people, there is power and politics, insecurity and risk.

“But,” she continues, “organisations benefit from openly sharing ideas and productive challenges. Dialogue gets closed down if those in positions of power engender fear.”

Fear shouldn’t be confused with stress, which, in some cases, can be positive. “There is such a thing as positive stress to breathe energy and a sense of purpose into employee efforts,” says Shaw. “But a strong people manager will be tuned in to what motivates individual employees and how they can be stretched, but also be astute to their resilience levels and how they respond under pressure.

“A good manager will also seek to deflect pressure from employees when they suspect it will become an unhealthy distraction. They do this by quickly reading and evaluating individuals and situations. “Ruling with an iron fist and through fear will not deliver positive outcomes for anyone – not the individuals involved, not the team and not the business as a whole.”


From zero-hours contracts to threats of losing one’s job – how can managers help settle worries in the workplace?

Keep it clear

Behind smokescreens, rumours spread. If there is bad news, be honest and follow up. And do not forget to celebrate success. “Today’s leaders, whether they are good people managers or not, need to have emotional intelligence,” says Nick Shaw from CEB. “Developing self-awareness and emotional intelligence are therefore critical foundations for a leader operating in a complex, interconnected and diverse environment.”

Seek feedback

Making yourself available for your employees to ask questions and voice their concerns will go a long way towards settling any fears. “Even if you are collaborative and approachable as a manager, those working for you will doctor what they say to you – your task is to identify a number of people who are more able to speak openly to you and share with you ‘the word on the street’,” says Dr Megan Reitz from Ashridge Business School.

Accept criticism

Being in control and confident is an important aspect of feeling satisfied at work. Reitz explains: “If you do get challenging feedback you need to respond to it in a productive manner, which will encourage further feedback rather than prove to the other person that they were mad to speak so honestly in the first place.”

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