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Are you afraid of your boss?

Plenty of employees are controlled by fear, but it doesn’t actually make them better at their job. Far from it. Viv Groskop has a solution to workplace terror

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By Viv Groskop on

It has been a long time since I was really scared at work. But I can remember a time in my early working life when I was so bloody terrified that I used to go and hide in the toilet. Or at least I would have done if there had been any room. Because I was not alone. Everyone was in there.

I worked on a daily newspaper and, every day between 10.30am and 11am, there would be at least a dozen people trying to hide in the loos to avoid being saddled with The Nightmare Task of the Day, allotted to the junior reporters after the editor’s morning conference. Most days, if you hid for long enough, it meant you dodged a bullet. If you got hit, your life was ruined for 24 hours as you were forced to do some horrific stunt task, such as dressing up as Marilyn Monroe, having your face photographed with “miracle Vaseline” smeared all over it or having hair extensions “just like Gwyneth’s”. All things that happened to me when there was no free cubicle. 

A new book by a team of psychotherapists and neurologists, The Fear-Free Organization by Paul Brown, Joan Kingsley and Sue Paterson, suggests that we have three key fears at work: fear brought on by stress from overwork, the fear of being fired and the fear of being bullied. The Nightmare Task of the Day ticked all three boxes. It was a form of bullying which involved overwork. (I was in a hair salon for seven hours, people.) And it made us all terrified of being fired. 

We have three key fears at work: fear brought on by stress from overwork, the fear of being fired and the fear of being bullied

In The Fear-Free Organization, the authors argue that fear is easily triggered in the human brain “which is why it is so readily used as a management tool”. Fear is one of the emotions that incites stress and produces cortisol (the stress hormone). Fear makes people work hard and do things they wouldn’t otherwise do. The hair extensions were extremely painful and unflattering. But it also makes them do inferior work. “When fear is triggered at work,” they argue, “survival strategies take precedence over creativity, independent thinking, decision-making, attachment to the organization, and doing what’s right versus what will please the boss.” 

But what can you do about this? I don’t suppose leaving a copy of The Fear-Free Organization around for your boss to read is a particularly practical suggestion. Nor is hiding in the toilet. Executive coach Russ Harris, author of The Happiness Trap, has a good trick called “expansion”. You allow yourself to feel the fear (of being bullied, of doing things you don’t want to do, of not looking anything like Gwyneth Paltrow, despite hours of expensive hairdressing) and you imagine yourself expanding so that you can fit that fear inside you. 

That leaves plenty of room for other emotions and ideas like resilience, patience, anger and, in my case, nuclear rage and volcanic fury. You need to find the space for these because they will fuel what you need to do next: cope in the short-term; try and seek change where you are in the medium-term by talking to your boss; and – probably the best strategy in the long-term – find a new workplace that isn’t run on terror. What did I do? After a year, I fired myself by taking redundancy. It only took about 15 years for my self-respect to recover. Not sure my roots ever have.

• Viv's Waving, Not Drowning podcast is broadcast every other Tuesday night at 5pm. Catch last week's here: Dear Viv, episode 17. Or subscribe to the full set from The Pool on iTunes.

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