Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf? How to Manage Fear in the Workplace.


Fear is tricky.  Some people want to "follow the fear" while others will run like hell. In business environments, fear comes in many forms; fear of being judged, fear of being shut down, fear of being wrong, fear of the unknown and fear of fear.  With all that fear, it’s no wonder people are stressed out and miserable much of the time.  The weight of constant fear impairs your ability to reach your goals and basically paralyzes you.  That sounds excruciating! If you strip down to the root cause of fear, where it comes from, often times we find that it stems from a fear of failing. Most of us were taught very early in life to "color inside the lines" because that's the right way to do it.

For me, Improvisation has been great tool for managing fear.  It gives you the permission to color outside the lines.  By turning off your inner critic, you are free to color all over the place.  Improvisers learn to go with what they have in the moment, and it is for that reason they are able to keep moving forward and following the unknown, not worried as much about the outcome of doing it right. Guy Kawasaki talks about how failure and imperfection are essential to innovation.  He refers to the first Mac being shipped and learning that “elements of crappy” are okay, “Don’t worry be crappy”, as Mr. Kawasaki likes to say.  On the way to creating greatness, we drop little bits of crap, but it is okay, because ultimately it can become something great. Worst thing that might happen, we fail, we learn and we move forward.

What if Vincent Van Gogh had given up on painting because he experienced hardly any recognition or rewards for his work during his life time?

Innovative people are not afraid of mistakes or ridicule. They aren’t worried about perfection, but instead have a passion for creating life changing works of art.  Some of the world’s most brilliant inventions were the result of massive failures and unrelenting attempts at creating something other than what was the final product.  See Post-It Notes, Coca-Cola and Penicillin.

So, how can organizations adopt a better way of approaching fear in the workplace? 

Promote a culture where mistakes are expected and failure is inevitable. This is exactly what performing improv taught me and many others. You expect the act of creating or building something to be flawed and possibly fail altogether, and it's okay, it's part of the process. Realize it quick and get to the thing that matters.

Create an environment where the consensus is "we support your success and failure".  Create an environment of trust where people look out one another and accept all the diverse parts that make it work. People will take risk when they are not worried about being judged or failing. 

It is amazing what happens when you take away the looming fear of failure. The concepts of improvisation are quickly becoming effective tools to help companies build trusting environments and innovative teams.   .

Don’t be afraid of the big bad wolf!  Invite it in, make friends with it. It may surprise you, in a good way.

Kristy West is Founder and Improv Facilitator at BraveSpace in Atlanta, GA, and she teaches companies how to use improvisation tools to be more successful at work.