Everything rustles… (how fear drives your people)

The impact of fear on the workplace typically comes from allegations of a hostile work environment, inappropriate manager behavior, too much stick and not enough carrot, etc. And yes, fear DOES impact the workplace in all those ways. What I want to talk about is the everyday impact fear has on the actions and decisions of managers and employees alike. It’s like death by a thousand cuts – one doesn’t take you down, but a whole lot of them over time is bound to beat you.

The title of this post comes from a quote from Sophocles (seems like a smart guy, so I am okay quoting him):

To him who is in fear everything rustles.

Think about all the rustling going on in your company. There’s a closed door meeting (rustle). The boss isn’t returning my calls (rustle). That person is getting more attention in the staff meeting (rustle). All of this fear is destroying your culture and creating behaviors driven by the wrong thing.  I’ve worked in environments where fear was a seen as a  “motivator” that should be used, and I’ve seen the impact it has on the company – from turnover, to recruiting, to business results, to culture.  It ain’t pretty.

afraidWhen actions are driven by fear rather than thought, you end up with dysfunction.  It’s easier to question motives and suspect a hidden agenda.  A leader’s primary purpose (to make the company successful) is discarded, replaced by a “cover my ass” mentality.  We’ve all seen it – hell, we’ve all probably fallen prey to it at one time or another.  Recognizing fear can be easy – overcoming it is the tricky part.

In his excellent book Your Brain At Work, David Rock uses the SCARF model to help illustrate what drives people either toward or away from a situation, and I like to use it to show how fear becomes the driver in all 5 areas:

  • S stands for status, your relative importance to others.  
    Fear of losing status can cause incredibly awful decision-making, like covering up mistakes, failing to develop their people (they might be better than I am!), forming inappropriate “alliances” amongst their peers, or worse – burying corporate malfeasance.
  • C  stands for certainty, the ability to predict the future.
    This is the reason people tend to run away from change – the fear of the unknown.  Fear driven by a need for certainty is what drives a lot of the gossip and “story-telling” seen in organizations, because people combat lack of certainty by creating a reality that they think they know.  Worse still is when decisions are based on the new reality (and you know it happens every day).
  • A stands for autonomy, which provides a sense of control over events.
    Fear in this area manifests in passive-aggressive behavior – people are afraid they don’t have control so they find a way to get it back, typically by NOT doing something you’ve asked them to do.  Occasionally fear causes people to act first, collaborate second because they fear that their choice in the matter will be taken away from them.
  • R stands for relatedness, or a sense of safety with others (think friend or foe).  
    Trust (or lack thereof) is a major cause of fearful behavior in business – I’m afraid I can’t trust you, so I don’t dare speak up/collaborate/engage in healthy debate/be authentic/you name it.  People are also afraid that they won’t be part of the “in crowd”, that they’ll be on the outside looking in.  This can drive inauthentic relationships, and cause people to act “fake” for the sake of fitting in.
  • F stands for fairness, which (no surprise) relates to the perception of fair exchanges between people.
    Leaders loooooove it when people talk about fairness (darn it, where’s that sarcasm font???).  As it relates to fear, though – a perceived lack of fairness in a situation causes people to fear that they’re in trouble, or they aren’t valued.  This can lead to active disengagement, undermining the success of others, or justifying lying/stealing because “the company owes me”.  They are afraid they aren’t getting “what’s fair.”

So start paying attention to what you’re seeing in your organization and see if fear is driving behaviors you don’t like.  And if fear is the “preferred” method of leadership, use SCARF to help address the issues.  Quiet the rustling in your world.

One last geek quote (but it’s a good one from Dune):

 Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.

What examples of fear have you seen in your organization?  Share below!