The Psychology of Fear in an Organization

Good morning all!  As I said last week, I wanted to go a little bit broader when it comes to fear and the impact it has on an organization.  While some studies out there discuss and prove to a degree the NEED for fear as a tool in some organizational settings (consequences), for the most part I think we all agree that our teams are much more productive in an absence of fear than when it is the default environment.  Often, though, we don’t talk about fear and this creates issues in and of itself.  Why should we talk about fear?

  • Fear is the elephant in the room. In this time of rapid change, austerity and uncertainty, fear is the specter that haunts us the most, as individuals, organizations and society – whether we acknowledge it or not.
  • Fear has many faces – the fear of loss of face, prestige, position, favor, fortune or job
  • The dominant fear at present is the fear of the unknown

But what effect does fear have on our everyday lives and our working lives, and our ability to foster innovation within our organization?  Fear within organizations leads to:

  • Frustration
  • Powerlessness
  • Lack of control
  • The frenetic pace of life
  • No time for reflection
  • ‘Doing’ not ‘being’
  • Alienation
  • Toxic environment
  • Emotional withdrawal
  • Loss of identity
  • Disengagemenent

Along with this, fear breeds a need for control, whether it is hierarchical control, target control, or control through withdrawal or working to the rule (and not innovating).  Innovation rarely thrives in this kind of environment and there is an alternative to managing by fear and control.  Instead we should focus on creating an environment of trust, engagement, and motivation to create an innovative culture.  These all seem very intuitive, no?  However, research indicated that trust in organizations and leaders is at an all-time low and we know that employees that have high trust in their organizations stay with those organizations longer, put in more effort and work more cooperatively.  Employees with low or no trust often reduce the effectiveness of their work and often engage in behavior that is counter-productive.  To that end, to remove fear and that negative behavior, we need to focus on creating a culture of trust, and in some cases that is an uphill battle given that we’re often dealing with the culture of our customers which is out of our control.  That means we have to remain hyper-vigilant to maintain our core values and strive for a culture of trust amongst our teams.  How do we do that?

A few initial ideas around this include:

  • Foster organizational cultures in which greater individual autonomy and small organizational risks are part of everyone’s jobs
  • Encourage people to think independently
  • Make it so everyone is responsible for the development of innovative thinking, whether it’s true innovation or innovation around ways to increase quality, mitigate risk, or reduce costs
  • Change the nature of conversations in organizations to empower an innovative mind-set and performance breakthroughs
  • Encourage healthy dissent, diversity and challenge; new thinking grows out of bringing new ideas together
  • Encourage trial and error – learn from failure
  • Don’t overdo targets and performance monitoring

If you are interested in reading more about this, Keegan has written The Psychology of Fear in Organizations: How to Transform Anxiety into Well-being, Productivity and Innovation which is a great starting point along with the attached article on 8 Ways to Decrease Organizational Fear.  For the counterpoint to this, I’ve attached an article of how fear can be appropriately used in organizations to address short term behavior changes.  That said, fear stifles creativity and kills innovation as it makes risk taking unpalatable to all.

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