Fear is harming your business. 5 Ways to spot it

fear and blame kill performance

Fear as a management tool is common place still. Even though it’s impact is so negative on every level, fear is still the foundation of many managers toolkit.

It’s not their fault, but I often see it as habitual and cultural. Corporate structures and hierarchies are set up with best intentions, but when the power is weighted upwards, then those at the bottom will always feel powerless and fear is normal. So normal in fact that we accept it and don’t even notice its existence within us.

At a recent leadership day, I worked with 22 leaders from around the world to focus on trust. One of the delegates challenged me.

Surely there is a place for fear. If you want someone to do something, then they need to understand the consequences of not doing it

The latter part of her statement was spot on. Everyone should understand the consequences or impact of their actions and can then choose to make a decision to do, or do not. Fear is never a productive tool.

5 reasons

  1. Fear of consequences. Most of us have been conditioned to fear consequences. Our parents would tell us, if you don’t tidy your room then you won’t get your pocket money, if you don’t eat your food you won’ get dessert. The if and then placed on the negative side automatically conditions our brains to think negatively about the task we are being instructed to do. Positive psychology showed us that when you reward the good behaviour instead, you are more likely to get a positive response, less resistance and a quicker outcome. So instead of approaching your requests with a positive if-then statement. “If you complete this tasks on time, then we will be able to focus on the big priorities that I know your are interested in.” Another approach is to simply put the responsibility on your team member. “I need this task completing as a priority, how will this impact your other work?”  Fear of consequences triggers our survival reactions and you will be faced with a flight, flight or freeze response, none of which will get you the results you want fast.
  2. Fear of speaking up This is one of the most common signals that fear exists in a business. It always fascinates me that when I lead a workshop and the leader, or dominant person is missing, the flow of conversations and truth is rapid. When the feared person returns, the behaviours change. It might look like me posing a question, and everyone shifts in their seat, looks down or starts scribbling on their page. They wait for the dominant person to speak first so they can follow their lead. Knowing this I set the space right at the start by building low risk trust exercises. I ask that the leader speaks last and helps me to remove the fear. Fear of speaking up results in poor decision making and lack of buy in and commitment. How can a leader make an informed decision unless they hear all of the opinions and facts from the room? I challenge members to take their functional hats off and put their business hats on, and I want to hear everyones ideas and opinions. There is no right or wrong answer, just an exchange of perspectives, which lead us closer to the best outcome. As a leader, it is easy to fall into the habit of doing all the talking or publicly rejecting others ideas, but this WILL harm your business performance.
  3. Fear of conflict. Most people like to be liked. The opinions of others matter to us and we fear rejection by others or upsetting others. So the default behaviour is to avoid conflict. But conflict is inevitable, the trick is to use is productively. When people are afraid of conflict, they tend to agree publicly to move the conversation on, even though they may see the flaws in an argument. We head nod if everyone else head nods, for fear of being the one person who thinks differently. Productive, healthy conflict is exciting, energised and passionate. When teams engage in healthy debate, they put their own ego and self preservation to the side and act in the best interests of the business. They are passionate because they care. Head nodders leads to consensus, mediocracy and poor decision making, and often a whole lot of passive aggressive, political and gossiping behaviours.
  4. Fear of blame. This is a biggie. I remember working with one business where the leader said he was tired of having to make all of the decisions and come up with all of the solutions. I ran a series of focus groups to get to the bottom of the issues and it soon became clear that the leader had created a blame culture. If something went wrong, the leader jumped into blame. I heard that the reason the quality was poor was because the materials were poor, the reason the materials were poor was because the procurement team were inadequate. The procurement team were not given specifications from the product team. We were going round in circles as grenades were being thrown over the fences. If the leader responded to problems with no judgement and only curiosity then he would have created a different response. Ask “What are your best ideas to improve the quality?”, “If you could improve the quality, what would you focus on if you were me?”. When you focus forward, rather than backward, blame goes and solutions present.
  5. Fear of the truth. Radical transparency is ultra rare. Many leaders feel it is best to withhold information for as long as possible. Witholding and excluding others from decisions or information breeds fear and mistrust. Truth telling is so simple, but rarely used. 10 Years ago I remember hearing the gossip that our function was relocating to another city. I asked my boss if the rumours were true and he said of course not. No decisions had been made. I responded that some discussions were being had since there were outstanding decisions needing to be made. I asked him to simply tell the truth and he couldn’t do it. Instead he rushed into blame – trying to established who had said what to whom and how this rumour had got out. Sure enough, 3 months later consultations started and the team were relocated. Trust was broken because the leadership team didn’t tell the truth. The psychological contract had been broken.  People are reasonable and when faced with the truth, we ask questions, gain clarity and are empowered to make choices for ourselves. It also means that time, energy and head space can be moved onto the work at hand, not in gossip and speculation. Keeping us un the dark breeds fear and mistrust.

Fear is never a good option. Fear is autocratic and dictator style. Fear is bad for business.


To help remove fear and build a culture based on trust, contact us to start your diagnosis session.