Unless you work in the reptile house or a risky construction site, it's unlikely you give much thought to whether your employees are afraid. They're just typing away behind their computer screens, after all. But according to a recent survey, many of them are.

They're afraid of making a mistake. They're afraid of angry customers. And they're afraid of fighting with their manager. That's according to a recent survey from staffing agency Robert Half International, which found:

  • 28% percent of respondents said their biggest fear is making a mistake
  • 18% said they are scared of difficult clients
  • 15% percent said they are afraid of conflicts with a manager
  • 13% reported being afraid of speaking in front of a group
  • Another 13% said conflicts with co-workers are their biggest fear
  • Just 3% said they have no fears

Fear, of course, can be protective and healthy. Just think of our hypothetical poisonous snake handler. But according to David K. Williams, the CEO of Fishbowl, writing for Forbes, in most cases fear simply depresses your team's ability to be creative. He writes:

The inventive part of our mind is difficult to nurture, and we can only access it when we are relaxed.  An employee that feels supported and appreciated is more willing to devote their full energy, creativity and passion to the company and its goals, and will naturally innovate in every area within their influence. Employees who are afraid of something or someone in the organization will naturally close up to protect themselves, and can no longer perform at their full capacity.

So what can you do to ease your team's fear of risk taking and embolden them to think creatively? Kevin Green, with Chattanooga's Robert Half Finance & Accounting, gave some ideas to his local news website, most of which boil to more communication (except for public speaking. That just takes practice).

Make sure your employees know you have an open door for them and clearly express your expectations so they don't have to stress about guessing, he suggests. Williams agrees, but also offers other suggestions to enhance the atmosphere of fearlessness at your office, including:

Rely more on principles and less on policy. Let’s forget the overbearing dependence on polices to govern our steps, and learn to agree on guiding principles instead. For us, the values principles are Respect, Belief, Trust, Loyalty, Courage, Gratitude and Commitment. By following our principles instead of our policies, employees can make quick decisions that improve their own performance without manager oversight or performance appraisals. They can adapt to change on the fly. They can create their own solutions rather than worrying about the policies and procedures involved. They are no longer fearful about the possibility they will make a mistake.

Of course, big values like "loyalty" are vague and open to interpretation. If being loyal to a customer, for example, means getting a colleague into hot water, who trumps whom? (And what does belief mean--no one can express skepticism?) But the underlying idea, perhaps with fewer and more focused values, seems to have merit--by focusing more on the bottom-line ethos. Focus less on that laundry list of rules and procedures, you both indicate your trust in your employees and encourage them to boldly find their own way to getting to the principles you've agreed on.

Do you inspire fear or creativity in your team?