Fear in an organization is seldom a good thing. Those who inspire it are often last to grasp that they’re catalysts behind rampant employee disengagement and sagging morale, to say nothing of declining productivity and business unit performance. 

And yet, fear—though not the kind stoked by a toxic boss—can be productive if harnessed with just the right amount of self-awareness and an ambitious eye toward the future. 

A dear friend of mine whose role at work has expanded exponentially due to her drive, work ethic, and ability to move the business forward, just shared with me how she’s “scared at times” and concluded: “so I need to keep up studying”. 

That kind of productive fear, if kept in the proper perspective, with emotions in check and stress levels at optimal levels, where adrenaline and dopamine heighten the senses and boost energy supplies, can motivate us to overcome challenges and achieve our most aspirational goals. 

By developing our internal self-awareness we’ll be able to guard against the moment when a positive challenge turns negative and morphs into a threat response that overwhelms our sympathetic nervous system and leads to what Daniel Goleman calls an “Amygdala Hijack”. 

The key is to practice cognitive reappraisal: the reframing of emotionally challenging issues, by switching one’s focus from perceiving threat—which, helpfully, instantly mobilizes our brain into hyper-awareness—to seeing opportunity, which enables our brain to more easily generate creative insights and solutions to problems. 

That’s the secret weapon that helps enterprising professionals stay on the productive side of fear and keep their standards high, and, as in my friend’s case, “to keep up studying”.