Even the most collaborative, synergistic teams and relationships can be motivated by fear. This fear could be that someone might say or do something to disrupt or offend someone else; that someone may act in error; or that not all of the team’s efforts will be successful, recognized, or rewarded. As human beings, we have a cognitive bias that causes us to fear loss—we don’t want to be thrown out of the tribe or suffer from a lack of resources. It’s a kind of innate pessimism that makes us clutch what we’ve got and stay vigilant to make sure that nothing and no one will take it away.

Examples of Anxious Actions

Recently, I’ve seen these kinds of workplace fears play out in a few ways:

  • A team had terrific creative thinking, with everyone committed to coming up with the best possible, mutually responsible solutions to the challenges their organization faces. But because of supply chain problems several big customers needed products sooner than expected. The new time pressure made it much more difficult for team members to remain calm and measured, to consider all factors, and to remember to be generous – not just decisive. The threat of failure if they couldn’t move quickly resulted in less collaborative thinking and acting.
  • Two senior leaders had a longstanding trust relationship. They were sounding boards for each other, had each other’s backs in difficult situations, and shared intelligence and resources to create outcomes that neither could have achieved alone. When their division took on a new assignment in an area in which neither of them had prior experience, they were both anxious about being able to deliver results. One of them became hyperfocused almost to the point of micromanaging, acting unilaterally and separating herself from the relationship, as if she were afraid that if she didn’t take charge, the whole thing would fall apart. Her dear colleague began to retreat from this suddenly tighter, colder, less expansive treatment, and they stopped sharing information and resources with each other.
  • A sales team and an operations team were both actively involved in a project for a customer. But when confusion occurred, caused mostly by the customer, both groups were afraid that they would be blamed for the project’s failure. Rather than coming together quickly to do everything possible to salvage the project, they withdrew from each other and became less involved. It was as if they thought they would be safer distancing themselves from each other, even though that approach was the least likely to be successful.

How to Face the Threat

We can experience many kinds of threats in the workplace, even if we generally feel good about our colleagues. At a minimum, there’s the risk that we’ll be unfairly judged and found wanting; that we’ll lose resources, sponsorship, or time through no fault of our own; or that we won’t maintain parity with others and will lose status or regard in some way.

But how can you ease the situation when someone — maybe even just you — is operating out of fear or a sense of threat? Here are two effective approaches.

  • Pay attention to your body. Our bodies often notice that we’re under threat even while our minds are still trying to push away the perception. If your jaw is tense and your stomach is churning — or any other stress symptoms are manifesting — pay attention. Your body may be recognizing a threat that you are not yet ready to acknowledge. Note to yourself: “My body is reacting like I’m under threat. What about this situation is making me feel unsafe, even if I believe that’s an excessive reaction?” Don’t try to talk yourself out of the reaction. Instead, affirm it and move on: “Even though I’m having a threat response, and even though I’m worried about my colleagues’ reactions/whether my team members really agree with me/ whether I can trust my boss, in this moment, I know that I am safe and I can make choices about what to do.”
  • Share your perceptions and seek input. Your best colleagues may be able to help you understand the situation better, show you that you’re not really under threat, or explain how you can tolerate the threat or change the situation to diminish it. But you’ll probably need to be explicit with yourself about the fact that something is bothering you: “I notice that I’m having a reaction to the new proposal. Please help me sort out the different parameters and aspects of it. Let’s see if we can figure out why I’m having a negative reaction, and what we can do to stabilize/improve/fix the situation.”

Our commitment to collaborating is often as much for the good of the group as it is for the specific outputs that can be generated thanks to the collaboration itself. But any time that we feel under threat or fear loss, we may turn away from our colleagues instead of joining with them to find and solve root causes. Recognizing the sense of threat and sharing our concerns can make it more likely that we will continue collaborating effectively, rather than distancing and isolating ourselves or succumbing to our own worst fears.