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Is fear a useful emotion in business?

Fear can be useful in the short term to drive performance, but be careful it doesn't become engrained in your business or team

England players watching their team play Iceland The England football team have used a psychologist to overcame fear

“Nobody wins afraid of losing.” This line, from a Chris Stapleton song titled Starting Over, was used as a mantra to great effect by the England Women’s football team in their glorious run to Euros success in 2022.   

Like all simple statements, there is depth behind it and lots to unpick.  

Let’s start with fear itself. This is just as relevant in the workplace as it is in elite sport. Experts in the field of sports psychology have identified up to seven different fears that affect performance. These include fear of not being good enough, fear of failure, fear of not meeting expectations, fear of being judged, and fear of the unknown.  

One thing that sport does particularly well is to face up to the reality that fear is a part of the human condition, particularly when results are on the line. The same realisation can help performance in the workplace.  

But is fear an effective driver of performance? Many years ago, I tried to find my way to some understanding of this topic. And the more I read about and discussed it with elite coaches and athletes in the search for answers, the clearer the message became.

Fear can be useful in the short term to drive performance, but it is not a healthy way to motivate somebody over the long term. While some athletes might be able to use and master fear, many more will quit or burn out early, overwhelmed by the mental and emotional toil.  

England Women team celebrate winning the UEFA Women's Euro 2022
The Lionesses celebrate winning the UEFA Women’s Euro 2022 (Image: Franck Fife/AFP via Getty Images)

Moving across to the business world, an interesting piece of research was carried out by two academics at Warwick Business School, who looked at how fear can help and hinder entrepreneurs. Professor James Hayton and assistant professor Gabriella Cacciotti identified that fear of failure is widespread.

And while they were able to identify some positive aspects around motivation (centring around persistence, determination and extra effort) the negative effects were plenty, particularly around becoming less proactive and paralysis through analysis adversely affecting decision-making. They concluded that motivation from fear can bring higher levels of stress, with potentially negative health consequences. 

How to deal with fear in the workplace

Readers who have watched the play Dear England (about the men’s football team) will know that addressing this head-on is the way to go. In the production, the team enlists the help of Dr Pippa Grange, who highlights that fear can turn life into a constant struggle that will, ultimately, wear us out.  

Recognising that it is relevant is the first step, while spending a bit of time digging down into what it is you’re afraid of, is time well spent. As is some self-compassion – this is part of the human condition. 

However, the trick is not to wallow but to execute a small, subtle shift that can make a huge difference. That is: instead of focusing on what you are afraid of and therefore trying to avoid, focus on what you are working towards. Ask yourself: What is it I am aiming for? What am I moving towards?

The answer might be developing and improving as a leader or building an amazing business. The key is to work out what your compelling destination is and then spend your energies moving towards this, rather than moving away from something negative. For the New Zealand All Blacks, the most successful sports team over the past century, it has been, “Don’t just be a good All Black, be a great All Black.” 

The message is clear: the dark side of fear too often wins out. So why not follow the Lionesses? Set yourself free by redirecting your focus from what you fear to what you want to achieve. 

Catherine Baker is the founder and director at Sport and Beyond, and the author of Staying the Distance: The Lessons from Sport that Business Leaders Have Been Missing 

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