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What does 'to spook at shadow' mean in the following context?

My sense of the issue is that a lot of engineers are spooking at shadows, worried about their performance reviews if they spend 80% of their time on their teams' main business rather than 100%. The solution to this, as far as I am concerned, is to make sure there is someone who is willing to stand up and say positive things about your project at review time

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up vote 4 down vote accepted

'Spooking at shadows' is a thing horses do.

To spook is to suddenly jump sideways or change direction, which allows the horse to flee from predators. In theory this should only happen when they see something scary, like a snake. In practice, horses are nervous animals, and will spook at all kinds of things, like some moving grass that could potentially be hiding a snake.

A really nervous horse will spook at anything at all surprising, including completely unthreatening things like flowerpots, puddles, or shadows.

So when the engineers 'spook at shadows' they are panicking about things that are completely unimportant.

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+1 nice analogy with horses, but I would never say review time is completely unimportant, it's when most people are on edge – Peter Jan 14 at 12:30
Thanks.I see.So can we say basically it means being nervous and maybe we can say "being on pins and needles" . – Mrt Jan 14 at 12:36
I wouldn't say that (I only use 'pins and needles' to mean the tingling feeling), but maybe Americans would. – ssav Jan 14 at 12:59
No, Americans don't use "pins and needles" that way. We use pins and needles to describe when a limb has gone numb from being in the wrong position too long (idiom is it's fallen asleep), and it's tingling as it wakes up, often painfully. – Karen Jan 14 at 14:12
As an American (specifically in the south), I have heard on pins and needles used many times to describe a state of nervous anticipation: "He was on pins and needles waiting for the results of the blood test." But I think it's a different nuance than spooking at shadows which specifically implies an unjustified level of worry. – Sabre Jan 14 at 14:58

OP's example is a rather unusual usage - there are just 43 hits for spooking at shadows in Google Books, compared to over 6000 for the idiomatically standard jumping at shadows.

Apart from that established idiomatic preference, there's also the fact that in most contexts spook is a transitive verb. Thus Google Books has just three instances of I spooked when (something startled me), as opposed to 75 instances of the "passive transitive" form I was spooked when (it happened).

But semantically, spook (to startle, or be startled) isn't very appropriate in OP's context, where the sense is more one of worrying, fretting, being concerned about (an extended, rather than a knee-jerk reaction). Those engineers certainly aren't prone to suddenly jumping back in astonishment every time they consider their actions in relation to future performance reviews.

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+1 for the comment about the inappropriateness of the metaphor to the context of fretting. – TRomano Jan 14 at 14:43

Adding to ssav's great answer, a horse is well known for spooking at its own shadow and we use a shadow roll (below picture) to prevent it from spooking at its own shadow while racing. If it does, it will be very dangerous to a jockey who is riding on its back.

Shadow has a connotation of unintended result as if it were a shadow made by a horse when the sun shines behind its back. It's not horse's fault, but it can spook at shadow (unintended result) unfortunately.

Going back to your context, those who spend 80% (not 100%) of their time are worried about their performance review. They don't need to worry about it in the same way a horse doesn't need to spook at its shadow. It is not dangerous and doesn't cause any harm. It just happens when you are trying to do something with good intention.

Spooking at shadow in your context means worrying needlessly about something that is not your fault.

enter image description here

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