Despite the overwhelming evidence about fear’s debilitating impacts on performance, many leaders still resort to stoking people’s fears to get work done.
Given how damaging fear is in the workplace, it is useful to know whether the organization you work for might be in need of more courage. In my courage-building facilitator guide, Courageous Leadership, I offer these five telltale signs that you can use to assess whether your organization is working under fear’s grip:
- CYA Rules the Day: Workers spend an inordinate amount of time covering their tails and generating “proof” that they are doing their jobs. CYA (cover your a**) often shows up in how many people are cc’d on email exchanges, when even mundane emails include a long list of cc’d recipients.
- The Emperors are Naked: Leaders are insulated from employee feedback and dangerously blind to themselves. Often the higher you go up the organizational food chain, the less performance feedback is given. Feedback almost always flows downward, keeping leaders blithely and dangerously oblivious.
- Bean-Counters Rule: Financial acumen is valued more than creativity or innovation, causing decisions to be driven solely by “the numbers” versus what is in the long-term best interests of the organization. In fear-based organizations, the educational backgrounds of senior executives often disproportionately favor accounting or finance, often causing the organization to be hyper-analytical, rationalistic, and risk-averse.
- People Are Hung for Making Smart Mistakes: Mistakes are punished swiftly and harshly, creating a “play it safe at all costs” environment. Workers end up hiding mistakes or, worse, blaming others for their own mistakes. When mistakes are made, the first question isn’t “How did this happen?” but “Who caused this to happen?”
- Everything is Perpetually Urgent: The work environment in fear-based organizations is fraught with urgency and anxiety. In such places, regardless of their roles, everyone seems to have the same job: firefighter! With no relative sense of prioritization, the organization loses focus and performance suffers.
Fortunately, fear, for all its badness, does have one redeeming quality. Fear is an invitation to courage. As such, fear, or more precisely the courage that fear often prompts, can help you encounter your better self. I once attended a talk given by former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. During the talk, Giuliani reflected on the lessons that his father had taught him about courage and how those lessons helped him in the weeks after 9/11. Giuliani described the interwoven relationship that fear and courage have well when he said, “If you don’t have a fear, you’d better go get one. Dealing with fear is how you find your courage.”
How is your fear inviting you to have courage today?