What Frightens You About Your Work?

THE OTHER NIGHT, under a clouded and moonless sky, as I walked our small dog behind the house – I heard him growl, saw the blur of his white back stiffen – and felt the surge of adrenalin and fear of the unknown creature he sensed nearby. Realistically: this was likely small, a cat, an opossum. But as my mind raced through the possibilities, the more remote ones rushed to the fore: Another dog? A coyote [I’d seen one at the end of the street… perhaps a pack]? A skunk? Was my pint-sized warrior in danger (a sensation almost worse than feeling myself threatened)? Until I could see the threat clearly – my system was on high alert; and while my rational mind presented the likely threats… my irrational mind just as quickly named its favorites.

This experience – and a recent exchange with Don Mick, on the impending Halloween holiday – reminded me of the place of fear in our lives, both the fears of which we’re aware and those perhaps just as present, if less visible. As Akiko Busch wrote this in the NYT, this “… time of year when we celebrate and indulge in what frightens us may be a good moment to consider how fear begins”, and ultimately, how we might name and confront it.

“Fear…”, she says, “… arrives in layers in which genetic legacy converges with personal experience… A biological response to what we sense as a near and present danger. It observes its own absurd hierarchy, in which we often harbor an abiding anxiety for the wrong things.” Confronted with near and present danger, we evolved early, effective adaptive responses: Fight, freeze, flight.

Yet we are seldom moved by less urgent/ less immediate, but just-as-real threats: Global warming. The risk of serious injury/ death every time we get in a car. Low-quality, cripplingly expensive health care. The chance that a loved one is among the 10 people per 100,000 fatalities annually from guns in our hands, or those of fellow citizens. The real risks to our personal savings, well-being and economic futures from a capricious, hungry financial marketplace-machine, enabled by cozy, weak or oblivious regulators. Infections and illnesses when we visit a hospital. The readiness of our children for the world they’ll inhabit. Contracting cancer. Losing faculties as we grow older.

Some of us wake to faint, low ghoulish moans in the night – and some sleep soundly without care or anxiety. As humans, we generally fail to respond to those threats we experience as less immediate, less relevant for us, those farther away. We’re “wired” to deal with what’s right upon us, right now.

In our workplace – where we spend about half our awake time – many experience risk, anxiety, fear; here’s a few from my own recollection over a varied career: An unpleasant, disgruntled coworker. Being passed over for promotion – and even for acknowledgment. A hard-nosed, self-absorbed, unsympathetic, oblivious or capricious boss. Working for a company living “on the edge” of survival. Working within a low-status department, perhaps perceived to have questionable relevance and value contribution. Fierce and aggressive marketplace competition – with the relentless background drumbeat of work moving overseas to lower-cost regions. Increasing living costs, with income levels, stuck or moving in reverse. Impossible baskets of KPI’s to meet, without sufficient resources or help. Another desperate, lurching, bravely-pitched change initiative that has little actual chance of success.

Many times, we expect ourselves to “suck it up”, whistle bravely past the graveyard of our fears, put on nonchalance or adopt an air of positivity. In our culture at large – especially for men – we push forward without reserve and act as if fears and anxieties don’t exist. But some hear these things that moan and rattle chains, just on the edge of consciousness – sometimes, deep in the night, in dreams. Some live with real, explicit, visceral fears in their work every day.

In this season where we traditionally caricature, stylize and name the monsters – “for the children”, we say; “Trick or Treat!”, we say, with a smile… For ourselves, this time, it might be worth inquiring what lurks nearby for each of us, at work – in plain sight, hovering on the edge of consciousness – perhaps back there, in the shadows. What troubling, half-acknowledged impressions live with us day-to-day – perhaps all year ’round? What fear do we carry that diminishes us, causes us to recoil, creates anxiety, robs us of sleep or comfort?

Importantly: What might be possible when we can squarely face what waits there? To name these fears; to confront or engage them, and to create the opportunity to move beyond: What name, face, costume, what garish sound, what image would you give to the fears haunting your work – right now?


Evan Smith
Evan Smith
EVAN is a select member of our "BizProphets" Thought Leadership Panel, a principal with Metamorphosis Management Group, a Director with Carriage Hill, and carries operating roles in several other companies. He trained as an industrial engineer who took deep dives into the social sciences, exploring the essence of what makes people "tick" - and has been helping leaders to deliver business growth and other measurable results through successful organizational and individual change for more than 20 years. Consulting clients have included major pharmaceutical, medical devices, financial services, chemical, automotive, technology, energy, and professional services companies, among others – and startup/ mid-market growth ventures. He’s based near New York City.

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