Balancing act: What scares you most in the workplace?

Published: Monday, Oct. 29 2012 1:00 p.m. MDT

In a new survey, 28 percent of respondents said that their biggest workplace fear was making a mistake on the job. Other top responses were dealing with difficult customers or clients, facing conflicts with a manager and speaking in front of people.

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Back when I was a newspaper reporter, my biggest fear was that I would get an important point wrong in a big story.

I'm not talking about a typo here. I'm talking about thinking I had something nailed down, only to find out after going to print that I had made a horrible mistake.

It's the kind of worry that keeps a reporter up at night, or gives him nightmares.

Fortunately, I can't recall that happening to me. I was not a perfect reporter — my stories occasionally had a typo or minor error — but I believe I avoided such a catastrophic mistake.

I think my fear of making a major misstep helped me steer clear of it. As a reporter, it's important to be assertive and to push for information, but it's also vital to have enough humility and caution to make sure you get things right.

It was interesting to remember that fear last week when I received a press release about a Halloween-appropriate survey from Accountemps, a specialized staffing service for temporary accounting, finance and bookkeeping professionals.

According to the survey, 28 percent of respondents said that, like me, their biggest workplace fear was making a mistake on the job.

The survey was conducted by an independent research firm and is based on telephone interviews with 420 office workers 18 years of age or older. Those workers were asked, "Which one of the following is your greatest workplace fear?"

After "making errors on the job," the other top responses were dealing with difficult customers or clients (18 percent), facing conflicts with a manager (15 percent), speaking in front of a group of people (13 percent) and dealing with conflicts with coworkers (13 percent).

There was a time in my life when I was probably more afraid of speaking in front of people than of making a mistake, but thanks to years of experience, that kind of thing doesn't really bother me much anymore.

Dealing with difficult customers is always challenging, but I wouldn't say I'm afraid of that, either. I was fortunate (if you can call it that) to speak to many unhappy customers during my years in the newspaper business, so I guess I've developed some skills for dealing with such issues.

However, even though I'm no longer a reporter, I do still have a real fear of making mistakes. That fear became even more pronounced when I changed careers about a year ago and had to learn how to do new, unfamiliar tasks.

"Mistakes will happen from time to time, and a healthy concern for avoiding them improves job performance — as long as that concern doesn't undermine one's confidence," said Max Messmer, chairman of Accountemps, in the company's press release. "Fear of failure holds many people back in their careers, but without smart risks new ideas would never take shape."

I definitely agree with that, especially the part about taking "smart risks."

The Accountemps release goes on to suggest five tips for getting through frightening workplace situations. Again, I think this list's trick-or-treating theme makes it both useful and appropriate for this particular week.

— Plan your route. A huge to-do list can be scary to anyone and is likely to lead to mistakes on the job. "To ease workload-related worries — and be more efficient — prioritize your responsibilities, and delegate when possible," the Accountemps release said.

— Ask for directions. "When facing a challenging project or new responsibilities, make sure you know what is expected of you," the release said. "If you have concerns, let your manager know, and work with him or her to develop a strategy for overcoming them."

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