The Engaged Workplace? Make Room for Fear.


Not long ago, Sixty Minute’s Lesley Stahl interviewed Christopher Wheeldon, one of the few ballet directors to produce a hit Broadway show. He is now the most sought after ballet director in the world.

Throughout his interview, he routinely talked about his fears:

“The probably couldn’t see the sweat trickling down the back of my neck.”  

When Ellen DeGeneres got her first Television show, she told a journalist from Los Angeles Magazine,

“This elevates my terror to a whole new level.”

Employee engagement is an emotionally centered process.

But, in many environments, we outlaw entire emotional categories, especially fear. Consequently, we often smother right action.

One of the most famous quotes of all time is Franklin D. Roosevelt’s,

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

This statement embodies the corrosive myth there is something wrong with fear.

Here is a healthy alternative statement:

The world’s great biologists and behavioral scientists tell us the sole purpose of fear is to take action. Further examination shows us that when we encounter fear, a mechanism is triggered that pushes us to take action.

Why do our colleagues need to be involved in creating environments that take risks and generate innovation? Because there are only two healthy ways to shut down the fear mechanism when is it triggered: To either get comforted by someone or to get educated in how to deal with a persistent and frightening problem.

As the world’s top entrepreneurs, athletes and entertainers routinely talk about the fears they have experienced as they attained greatness. Most tellingly, none of them allowed the myths about fear keep them from taking action.

Any organization that is committed to growing engagement, innovation and change would do well to establish an environment where risk taking is encouraged, fear is along for the ride and action is far more important than hiding.

Absent of taking this kind of stand we have a big problem. All of us have been conditioned, from birth, to use five filters that kill off change, eliminate taking risks and destroy engagement:

They are cynicism, contempt, aimlessness, resignation and frenzy.

Welcome to the five killers of engagement.

We are now looking at one of the fundamental reasons employee engagement will only work if everyone is working together. One of the greatest interventions in becoming a high performance organization is to rewire the individual and collective in how we view and respond to fear.

It is time to retire tired and old-fart views such as,

“Everyone remain calm.”

“Don’t be frightened.”

I’m often telling my people,

[message type=”custom” width=”100%” start_color=”#FFFFFF” end_color=”#FFFFFF” border=”#fb7200″ color=”# fb7200″]”Go out there and pursue anything that is really worthwhile, even if it terrifies you. If at first you fail, get back here. We will give you a hug, take a look at your strategy and send you back until you win.”[/message][su_spacer]

Engagement implies that we are there for each other, we watch each other’s back, we comfort each other, we inspire each other to take risks, we push each other to grow.

The alternative is to check out into the glow of our Smartphones, to let our minds run away from the stress of change, to forget that time is ticking away as our obsolescence grows.

We can use old thinking to paralyze ourselves with fear or use healthy fear to catapult ourselves forward.


David Harder
David Harder
DAVID founded Inspired Work in 1990, which has helped over 42,000 professionals transform their relationship towards work. Individuals from all walks of life attend Inspired Work’s public programs to launch new careers, new business or to become more successful in their existing role. He views work as a profound opportunity to become more fulfilled, contributive and effective. Mr. Harder’s leadership, employee engagement, executive development and social networking programs are used in a wide variety of organizations including The Walt Disney Company, HBO, Sony Pictures Entertainment, Loyola Marymount University, University of Southern California, The United Church of Religious Science, Morgan Stanley, and many others. Inspired Work’s leadership programs, career development and team building programs produce some of the worlds most outstanding satisfaction numbers in any business: 92.6% out of a hundred. David has appeared on many business and human-interest programs including CNN, KTLA News, KFWB News and Business News Network. David’s book, new book, The Workplace Engagement Solution (Career Press) offers an entire “crack-the-code” approach to engagement.

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  1. nice article – thankyou – one thought – I would argue that “Everyone remain calm.” is essential if you ‘fear’ – it doesn’t preclude ‘action’ – it does state on how you act in the face of fear – walk away from the tiger -don’t run for example.