Is Your Workplace More Like a Haunted House? Five Benefits of Fear

Growing up, one of my favorite Halloween traditions was to go to haunted houses with my buddy Brian. Every year, he would find the most random and terrifying houses within 25 square miles of our neighborhood. We never went to the same one twice and every year I would declare that I’m never doing it again. Why put myself through such a traumatic experience? But I kept going…and vowing not to…and going again. A recent conversation may have described why.

Last week I was attending the monthly meeting of a professional association I’m a part of. When it was over a few of us hung back. We were on the board together over a decade ago and have remained close over the years. While chatting, someone asked why we have remained so connected—we’ve all been on other boards and none have fused such friendships. Then we remembered Troy.

Troy was the President when we first joined. He selected each of us for our board positions and ran it with an iron, ethically-questionable, manipulative fist. It was a nightmare with the screaming matches, holier-than-thou speeches, and dubious accounting concerns…and this was a bunch of professionals volunteering in their spare time! After a bitter revolt, Troy was eventually overthrown and uninvited from the association.

So in hindsight, what kept my former board members and I together was experiencing a shared, fear-inducing event. Should leaders take a page from Troy? Should they turn the office into a haunted house? I know that I wrote about ways to avoid leading (and being lead) through fear a few weeks ago; however, in the spirit of Halloween, let’s discuss the benefits of scaring your team.

Fear is an interesting emotion. When primed for danger, we experience a spike in epinephrine (aka adrenaline), which is a hormone that triggers our heart rate to speed up, our muscles to get more blood, and makes us feel stronger and faster. In his book Extreme Fear: The Science of Your Mind in Danger, science journalist Jeff Wise called this response “the biological equivalent of opening the throttle.” It makes some people nauseous with anxiety, while others undergo a superhero-like rush.

In a leadership context, fear is not always a bad thing. In addition to the social bonding, which I already mentioned, fear generates:

A sense of achievement. According to sociologist Margee Kerr, “Like any personal challenge, running a 5K or climbing a tree, we stressed [ourselves] and came out okay. Even though we knew we were safe going in, we feel we accomplished something.” This was true with the board post-Troy, just as it was true with Brian in the haunted houses. In both instances I feel like we achieved a feat, even if I was just getting through it.

Strong memories. When people get scared, the high arousal sears the events into their brain. Images, smells, and other details remain evocative and easily accessible.

Focus. Our fight-or-flight response suppresses conscious thinking. Kerr theorizes that when faced with fear, “we’re not worried about groceries or abstract things, but instead feel very grounded and primal.” Distractions dissipate and a myopic attention pushes us to hone in on the issue at hand.

Joy. “The [fearful] response is triggered by anything unpredictable or startling. But,” says Kerr, “when we’re in a safe place and we know it, it takes less than a second for us to remember we’re not actually in danger. Then we switch over to enjoying it. It’s a kind of euphoria. That’s why you see people go right from screaming to laughing.”

As scared as I was in those haunted houses so long ago, I was never in real danger…and I knew that. The problem with most leaders’ use of fear is that they ignore Kerr’s emphasis on feeling safe. They threaten, scream, huff and puff, but they don’t contain the fear to a single, surmountable obstacle. Fear about a project may not be so bad, but if the employee is scared for their job or, even worse, their personal safety, any attempt at motivation is instantly gone.

Could even light-hearted fear cause nightmares? Maybe, but as New York Magazine explains, sleep researchers have proposed that bad dreams can serve as a form of emotional release, helping us release the anxieties that build up over the course of the day. “The things that concern us most when we’re awake continue to mess with us when we’re asleep,” the video states. “Your unconscious brain takes your abstract fears and turns them into stories in the form of nightmares.”

Fear can be a powerful tool, one to be used sparingly and with great discretion. No one goes to haunted houses all year round just as no one wants a fear-inducing leader all year round. Know your audience, draft a well-thought-out plan, and then think one more time whether there’s a better way to get what you want. Remember, you want a treat, not a trick.