Conflict in the Workplace? Follow Your Fear!

(Revised from a piece published September 30, 2009)

A Theatrical Intelligence blog reader posted a question a while ago about everyday conflict in the workplace, wondering if theatrical intelligence can help. Depending on the conflict of course, the answer is yes. As long as one is open to alternative ways of facing the challenge!

Conflicts at work are often reminiscent of family quarrels and hierarchies from our past: we feel embarrassed, uncomfortable, powerless, and usually that familiar 4-letter-word rears its ugly head: FEAR.

One of the great secrets in improvisation is to “follow your fear”, an expression coined 50 years ago at Second City by the late great Del Close.  Using this technique (even though it may seem counterintuitive) can yield surprising results.

Professional actors follow their fear in rehearsal and performance by looking for obstacles to overcome.  This creates dramatic tension, and requires them to step into unknown territory, which results in emotionally unpredictable, sometimes humorous behavior. When this behavior happens in places other than improvisation, we can laugh about it and learn from it – when it’s over!

The only way to really screw up in improvisation, is to deny “reality”. In this case “imaginary circumstances” = “reality”. This is another little jewel we can steal from improv.

For example, when two actors are on stage and one of them puts her jacket over her head to protect her from… no one knows what, yet… the reality of those imaginary circumstances are a GIFT to the other actor. (Is it raining? Are there pigeons above? Is there an enemy overhead?) One of the actors establishes what the jacket is protecting them from, the other actor accepts it as a gift, and that’s the reality upon which they build their story. 

In many workplaces a denial of reality is the norm: it’s “the elephant in the room” or “the dead moose on the table”, meaning no one dares mention the thing everyone knows is going on. Here’s the common wisdom: 

Denial of reality breaks down trust and builds up fear

Acceptance of reality opens up worlds of possibility

So, imagine this: the next time the current-conflict-at-hand happens yet again at work…  what if you follow your fear?  Accept the reality and have the courage to say “That dead moose on the table stinks – what are we going to do about it?” Or, to mimic a possible workplace scenario: “Is that another of your witty insults – again at my expense?”

Opportunities will leap out of nowhere for you and your colleagues. Why?  Because you’ve broken through the denial, acknowledged what is real, and cracked the conflict wide open. Can’t you just hear it? Try it! FOLLOW YOUR FEAR.

And please let us all know where your courage takes you – I suspect is worthy of acknowledegment. 



7 Responses to “Conflict in the Workplace? Follow Your Fear!”

  1. Vicki Daly says:

    Great advice for the office, for any kind of creative endeavor, and, well, for life!

  2. Ann Sachs says:

    Righto, Vicki – in fact I’m following my fear today… yikes!

  3. Todd Charron says:

    Hi Ann,

    Great post!

    Back in June, I put together an event called Follow Your Fear Day, encouraging people to commit to doing something they’ve always wanted to do in their lives, but hadn’t done yet because they were afraid.

    For me, it was doing a one person solo Improv show.

    I’ve also been speaking with a lot of organizations and individuals about how they can use Improv, Agile, and follow their fears to improve their work environments.

    I’d love to hear more from you on this subject, especially on ways you feel organizations can use these ideas. Thanks again for the post!


  4. Jo says:

    Great insight; love it. Wishing you all the best and great success Ann. We are so blessed to have the Missoula Children’s Theatre come through here every summer. Our kids love it, and the way they put on their fractured fairy tales with only 5 days of practice is unbelievable. This year was the Wizard of Oz and it was great!

  5. Ann Sachs says:

    Jo and Todd – it seems as if we are of like minds:

    Todd, thank you for introducing me to “The Lean Startup Machine” movement, and to Agile. I was unaware of either. You’re a guy who is literally following your fear, and sharing it with others – BRAVO.

    And Jo, I applaud your gift of theatre for your children; it’s one gift that never breaks, and even improves with age!

  6. Ellyn McKay says:

    Conflict scares the sh** out of me. When growing-up, it somehow never turned out well!

    I am learning! When I am able to look the fear dead in-the-eye… stay focused on what I FEEL, lead with an emotion, and then listen to UNDERSTAND, I can have the ‘dreaded’ conversation. And then – miraculously – we are in a better, more connected place.


  7. Nancy Forsythe says:

    Hi Ann,

    I’m with you 100%! While I don’t LIKE conflict, I have tried to name the “elephants in the room”, not always a welcome trait. I love the frame you have put on it. I’ll try it on and see what happens. I think along the lines of, “A part of me needs me to listen up!” and when I do, I can often respond for that part of me… not impulsively or angrily.

    Will pass this on to clients!

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