Does your school have a climate of fear?
Workplaces where fear is the main motivator are toxic but you can avoid creating one in your school, writes Sadie Hollins
Fear is much more present in our lives than we realise, and often acts as our behavioural GPS. It dictates and limits our choices, and can significantly impact those around us.
Sports psychologist Dr Pippa Grange describes two types of fear: “In-the-moment” fear describes the easily recognisable moments of high stress that cause an injection of panic, such as having a job interview or delivering a speech.
However, it is the “not-good-enough” fear that is most pervasive and is the modern expression of the primal fear of abandonment. It is the fear of failure and disappointing others, not being accepted or loved or good enough.
This type of fear can often operate in the background of our minds, invading the brain like a chronic, niggling inflammation. It can become distorted and expressed as jealousy, perfectionism, isolation or staying smaller than we really are. It’s present in the moments when a professional success or promotion still leaves us feeling empty and unfulfilled, or in the moments of jealousy and judgement of others.
"Fear-full environments can be overtly toxic, or they can be subtly destructive."
The emotion of fear very much feeds into the concept of the "scarcity mindset". This is the false idea that there is not enough love, admiration or respect to go around.
What’s interesting is that whilst fear can (and does) come from within us - our mind, beliefs and thoughts, it also comes from outside us - from the environments and cultures that we work in.
Dr Grange poses the question “how do we know if we work in a fear-full environment?”
Perhaps we encounter conflict with management or other staff on a regular basis. Perhaps we feel ground-down and negative about ourselves and our job. Perhaps there is an underlying fear that takes place in our daily interactions at work. These are signs that we may be a part of a fear-full environment.
Fear-full environments can be overtly toxic, or they can be subtly destructive. In order to combat these types of environments in our schools, real, sustainable change in a school has to start at the top. It is important to recognise here that leaders are not exempt from the “not-good-enough” type of fear and its various expressions.
"Leaders in passive-aggressive environments don’t say what they mean."
Dr Grange identifies four different types of environments which should be red flags for people working within them:
It’s passive-aggressive. Leaders in these environments don’t say what they mean. Their non-verbal clues communicate to you that you should be careful not to make a mistake. In these environments there are often mixed messages… the type where it’s indicated that your work isn’t good enough, but there is no support or advice on how to improve, leaving you confused and alone.
It’s predatory. These environments are hyper-competitive and you often feel like prey, waiting to get picked off for making a mistake. Public humiliation of some sort (perhaps in a mocking way) is something that you desperately want to avoid. A mistake in this type of environment could result in a black mark against your name, which could impact future contract renewal or promotion opportunities.
It’s power-based. In these types of environments there is a clear hierarchy of control. In these top-down environments it is clear that you need to comply and “stay in your lane”, and that any suggestions you put forward must be presented in a formal and data-reliant way, which can significantly stifle creativity and knock confidence.
It’s possessive. In this type of environment you may feel like a cog in a machine, yet it is often implied that you should feel lucky to work there. It leaves you feeling pressured to conform, and questioning how much of your individuality you will be required to give up.
"Working in these environments stifles our imagination and creativity."
Working in any of these environments can cause chronic fear that gradually strips away our wellbeing. It stifles our imagination and creativity, and makes us less effective at our jobs.
It is important for school leaders to reflect on whether they or their staff have adopted a scarcity mindset. Are you being judgemental instead of supportive? Are you worried about someone else having a better idea? Have you (intentionally or unintentionally) played a role in creating any of the environments listed above?
The current pandemic is serving as a magnifying glass to organisational culture. The stresses and strains we are under may well have accelerated any underlying crises that were already there before lockdown, bubbling beneath the surface. Rather than entering a blame game, perhaps this is the perfect time to evaluate our own expressions of the “not-good-enough” fear and how that may be impacting ourselves, and those around us.
Leave a Comment
Read more about Heads & Governors
Helen Pike, master of Magdalen College School, looks at what needs to be done to ensure students receive the fairest possible grades this summer
Susan Barnhurst on
E T Ranger on
Lucy Barnwell on
Lucy Barnwell on
Nicola Griffiths on