Once, after challenging authority a bit too much, I was put on probation at work. The plan was that, for three months, I would try to behave myself, and my boss would observe me trying to behave myself, after which we would revisit the situation.
It was an excruciating period, albeit one in which I was desperately well-behaved. I weighed everything I said and did, trying to gauge its impact. I delivered everything on time, even if a slight delay would have improved the quality of my work. I checked any idiosyncrasy at the door, held back on bold ideas or contrary opinions and generally made myself both invisible and miserable.
Finally, only a few weeks into this probationary period, unable to tolerate the feeling of fear in the pit of my stomach, I quit.
I thought about this episode of my life recently, when several friends told me that they all live in fear of losing their jobs. How can they work, I wonder, how can they perform bravely or vibrantly, if they get up every day uncertain about their status and fearful about their future?
The truth is that many workers, from chief executive officers -- who, as a group, have seen their tenure steadily shrinking -- to the most junior employees arrive daily at work with precisely that fear in the pit of their stomachs.
Fear, in fact, has become "one of the most pervasive emotions in the workplace today," writes Jeffrey Pfeffer, a professor of organizational behaviour at Stanford University, in a recent issue of the Rotman School of Management magazine.
You would think, with all the recent research into how emotions play out at work, that companies would be able to create fear-free environments. But even now, so many of them don't.
Daniel Goleman, author of the best-seller Emotional Intelligence, says that fear is "more pointless" than ever. "We now know that when people are anxious, the brain's sites for attention and memory misfunction. That means managers or companies who routinely inspire fear are shooting themselves in the foot," he says.
Prof. Pfeffer echoes this, articulating just how companies can thwart their own objectives by creating fear-filled environments.
Fear prevents real learning, Prof. Pfeffer says. If a company cannot truly tolerate error and failure, if it cannot cut employees who are implementing new programs a little slack, then nothing real gets done.
In his Rotman article, Prof. Pfeffer offers a comparison of two airlines -- an apt enough example, given last week's disastrous crash landing of Jetsgo Corp.
At American Airlines Inc., he says, "if a plane is late, American wants to know whose fault it is." So employees spend all their time "making sure they don't get blamed for it."
Compare that to Southwest Airlines Co., says Prof. Pfeffer, which runs by a system called "team delay"-- everybody shares in the responsibility; the airline is not as interested in apportioning blame as it is in getting those planes up in the air, and pleasing the customer, as soon as possible.
Apart from the dreary blame game, fear in the workplace also "retards the flow in information," Prof. Pfeffer says. No one tells the truth about anything, for fear they will be reprimanded or wrong, and therefore few people know what is really going on inside the company.
That's how a company suffers when there is fear, but how about individual employees? Even while working brutal hours and taking on extra work, they begin to shut down rather than risk rejection.
"My boss is getting only about a third of me because I am not speaking up the way I used to," admits one senior manager in the communications industry who endured three years under a leader who created a climate of fear. In her workplace, low morale is a given.
This manager astutely realized that the fear had travelled well up the line: her boss created a climate of fear because he lived in fear himself, of his own bosses.
Imagine hiring high-priced talent and then making them afraid to actually do their jobs. It happens all the time. Even talented, successful people fear they could lose their jobs, subject to the whims of bosses and the blind wrath of corporate balance sheets.
It's also remarkable just how many highly competent people say they do not feel valued any more. They probably are valued but, in a climate of fear, compliments are held back just in case that person turns out to be expendable.
To be fair, most leaders don't set out to create a climate of fear. As Toronto executive coach and psychotherapist Rilla Clark says: "You can't get away with that style of leadership any more."
Ms. Clark, who specializes in the financial and manufacturing sectors and with startups, says fear always accompanies change, of course, but it can also be fostered by leaders who are poor communicators. She's seen managers go into what she calls "fear lock" -- a paralysis if they are not getting clear instructions. Fearful managers are either constantly checking for reassurance, she says, or always on image control.
Feedback or the lack of it is as much a problem as ever, Ms. Clark says.
It always strikes me how sad it is that it is such a simple thing for managers to praise employees for doing their jobs well, yet so few do it. And so employees wonder and worry if they are doing the right thing.
As Prof. Pfeffer, in a resonant statement, concludes: "If there is enough fear in the workplace, you don't worry about what is going to happen eventually. You don't even worry about what is going to happen tomorrow. You worry only about today: how can I get through today?"
That sounds like more than a few people I know in more than a few workplaces.
And, yet, there is a paradox. We all need a little fear to get the adrenaline going, to push ourselves to get things done.
It's just that there is still too much of it in the workplace today.