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At work, you shouldn't fear fear itself

Fear is stalking us at work. It's a nameless dread slithering through the vents.

The whiff of flop sweat has spread well beyond those sectors openly marked as bruised and bleeding: car dealerships, newspapers, real estate fiefdoms. These days, fear taints us all.

Whether reasonably or irrationally, we find ourselves looking around and asking each other, "What's going to happen here?" And then, for want of any information, we make up a scary answer.

These days, fear is a collective experience, and its consequences are of a different order. We witness layoffs and budget cuts, with no clear sense of where the ax might fall next; we breathe in the contagious tension of owners and managers, who don't necessarily share specific information, yet can't help but broadcast their deep concerns.

And many of us confront visible signs of loss every day. "To get to my office, I have to walk through rooms where people used to be working," says a banking specialist. "It's like walking through a wasteland."

Your personality has a lot to do with how you will process this group experience of generalized ambient fear.

Whatever our personality bent, fear tends to make us more self-conscious about job performances. We worry about them more, criticize ourselves more and therefore enjoy work less.

Still, even as it makes us more self-conscious, fear also makes many people more alert. It sharpens your focus and rededicates your job performance.

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Way too much fear will paralyze you, but a sudden and tolerable jolt might wake you up and turn on productive juices that were lulled into complacency by job stability. Fear may be the enemy of fun, but it also is an antidote to whining because it whisks one's priorities into fresh order.

Fear has an impact on teamwork, albeit an unpredictable one. By and large, it hurts the sense of collegiality. When your manager is urged to use a budget hatchet or risk her own head, an "every-man-for-himself" reaction is to be expected. A collegial willingness to share the pain, a productive alliance with people whose last names you might not have known otherwise, a warm moment in the halls ("Hey, you're still here. Awesome!") with a colleague whom you had only nodded at before - these are the bonds that fear builds.

Our fears are best eased by that most powerful balm: We're in it together.

Two ways of dealing with anxiety

WORRIERS These people will likely be beside themselves: distracted, preoccupied and potentially provoked into more serious hopelessness or depression. They should resist the workplace rumor mill, which can lead to hours of anxiety- generating speculation.

DENIERS They will ride through the anxiety more smoothly, though, as always, their denial may prevent them from taking reasonable measures of self-protection.

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