Overcoming fear and building trust inside your organisation

Overcoming fear and building trust inside your organisation

Nothing creates chaos inside an organisation faster than fear.

If not handled correctly, fear of the unknown and fear of change can become breeding grounds for distrust, false information and incorrect assumptions.

This can lead to devastating impacts within a business, creating:

  • Second guessing
  • Scepticism
  • A lack of faith that people will do what they say
  • Deliberate resistance to change
  • Wasted time
  • Stress and anxiety

Internal communications plays a huge role in addressing and minimising fear, but it’s important for all leaders within an organisation to play their part.

In this blog post we’ll look at the science behind fear, why it happens, and ways to alleviate it. So let’s get started and break down overcoming fear and building trust inside your organisation…

What causes fear?

In order to understand fear and why it emerges – and therefore the ways we can tackle it – we need to look more closely at the science of our brains. Multiple factors come into play in igniting and fuelling fear, and quashing it is not as simple as it may first appear. An excellent book on the subject is Science of Fear by Dan Gardener, which is well worth a read when you have the time. In the meantime, here are five key factors to consider when looking at how fear develops:

How our brains work 

Understanding some of the basics of how our brains work helps us begin to see why trust and fear play such important roles in our decision-making.
The brain’s ultimate goal is to keep you safe. It doesn’t like you to venture out of your comfort zone.

In situations where it doesn’t know what will happen, it will make predictions – and these are usually negative. It’s simply how we are wired, an in-built survival instinct to stop us taking risks.

You can see then, how ambiguity is a problem when it comes to communication inside organisations. If people don’t know what’s happening, don’t feel safe or can’t predict what’s coming next, their brain moves into a state of threat.  

Images and our imagination are powerful 

Never underestimate the power of stories. We, as human beings, love them. It’s how we make connections. Telling stories and listening to stories makes it easier for us to put ourselves in other people’s shoes and feel what they’ve felt.

Add in images and that emotional response move up a notch. Research shows that our brains, when shown an image, will conclude that any perceived risk is higher or real than with words alone. This has nothing to do with any facts. It’s purely based on the response to the image.

Once you begin to understand how many of our subconscious decisions are based on emotions, it’s easy to see why the old adage that ‘there is no place for emotion in business’ is not quite true.

Once people have had an emotional response to something and imagined it, it stays with them – even if there is no factual basis for it.

Experiments have shown a significant proportion of many people’s memories are not, in fact, real. We feel as though they were real because the emotional response was so great.

Our brains aren’t always great at differentiating fact and fiction, particularly when it comes to the emotion of fear.

We have little understanding of risk 

Our immediate gut response to how risky something is and how much we need to fear it is often extremely warped, both by that in-built risk aversion in our brains, but also by external factors like news reports and social media.

Dan Gardener describes two scenarios in his book that most adults will have imagined living through at some point in their life – despite the chances of it happening to them being miniscule.

The first is child abduction. It’s part of the human urge to protect our species and ensure survival, but the likelihood of it actually happening is far more remote than many other things we never consider.

Gardener explains: “That nightmare scenario happens to about 50 teens and children a year in the United States. That’s 50 out of 70 million Americans. Thus, the annual risk of a teen or child being abducted by a stranger and killed or not returned is one and 1.4 million.”

The other scenario he describes is the fear of being on a plane that gets hijacked by terrorists. How many of us haven’t had the thought cross our mind when getting on a plane? Yet he describes a study which calculated that even if terrorists were hijacking and crashing one passenger jet a week in the United States, a person who took one flight a month for a year would have only a one in 135,000 chance of being killed in a hijacking. That compares to 1 in 6,000 odds of being killed in a car crash in the same period.

The role of the media 

News media and, increasingly, social media feeds into our fears by highlighting particular stories or topics that ignite human interest.
If a story gains traction, the general public’s awareness and interest in it becomes higher so media outlets will look for more examples of the same thing. This constant loop means stories that may previously have gone unreported suddenly fall under the spotlight, creating a warped perspective that these events happen a lot more than they do.

Politicians, newspapers, TV news, novels, and films all benefit from portraying the fantastically rare as typical, while what truly is typical often gets ignored because it doesn’t make for such an exciting story. This is the case for most crime, as well as diseases.

Our need for fairness 

You can’t simply squash fear with facts. It doesn’t work, because you’re only talking to one part of the brain. It’s the other, emotional, part that ultimately makes the decisions.

What does work is demonstrating how something has impacted other people, and what they’re thinking and feeling about it. We are social animals and we are designed to think about others.

Our ancestors depended on this cooperation to stay alive. Cooperation requires rules, and understanding how and why people break rules is crucial to survival – it’s why we have such a need for punishment and justice. 

If we feel that others are being unfairly treated, or are about to be, we’ll have a deep emotional response to this. To reduce this response, we need to see our fears actively being dispelled and to realise that those around us are ok. A simple statement won’t suffice.

How do we reduce fear and build trust?

Knowing what fuels fear means we can be more effective in tackling it.

Grounding our communications with these elements of basic human psychology ensures they create a much greater impact.

Here are our top 5 tips on building trust within your organisation:

Share information  – don’t leave gaps which could allow the brain to predict what is happening, making up false stories in the process.

  • Do what you say you will – and if you can’t, or something changes, explain why.  

  • Use stories and emotion to help people move away from fear – if we know we need this to help us make decisions then we should be dialling it up inside our organisations. Be more human, tell more stories 

  • Be curious – your people will be. Get people to critically review the information you’re planning to share before you share it. 

  • Be fair – make sure everyone feels they are being treated fairly. This can be particularly important when you have flexible working and not everyone is office-based.

You can listen to my podcast episode about this subject in here and if you’d like to chat more about how to build trust and move away from a culture of fear just drop us an email at info@redefiningcomms.com


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Subscribe to join our community and we’ll be in touch with helpful advice and updates about how we can take your organisation from chaos to calm. Our community gets invited to a quarterly 90-minute Ask Me Anything online session with Jenni Field, as well as early access to events, discounts and research.

  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.