The Working Dead: When Fear Drives Your Organization

Kristi Birkeland on Sep 1, 2017 3:00:00 AM

Having a little fear in your life isn’t necessarily bad. It can inspire you to do things like wear sunscreen, obey the speed limit, and “Sit up straight!” when your grandma tells you to.

But a lot of fear? A lot of fear can stop you from doing things that move you forward, like learning new skills, asking for help, or telling the truth.

When organizational leaders start basing their actions, behaviors, and decisions on fear— look out! The zombie apocalypse is near.

Scary stuff

There’s an old-school way of thinking that believes a good amount of fear is necessary in order to keep people in line. That fear is what motivates good behavior and increases productivity. But anyone who’s ever watched a scary movie can tell you otherwise. “You idiot!” we scream at the screen, “Don’t go looking for your friend outside!”

Sure, this is funny analogy, but it’s also a fact of life. People who are terrified rarely make well-thought-out decisions. And constant poor decision making can have dire consequences for your business.

The Fear Manager

What are fear-based leaders afraid of? Lots of things.

  • Failure
  • Being vulnerable
  • Appearing incompetent
  • Being reprimanded or fired
  • Not advancing in their careers
  • Losing the respect of peers or superiors

Why is this so detrimental? Because those who manage from a place of fear are focused on personal consequences rather than group successes.

And that’s not going to get your organization where it needs to be.

But we’ve always done it this way!

Fear managers aren’t willing to take any risks that might even remotely backfire or make them look bad. This includes things like adopting new technology, letting go of outdated processes, and making organizational changes. In other words, pretty much anything that hasn’t already safely been done before.

New ideas, by definition, have uncertain outcomes, which is the worst possible scenario for someone coming from a place of fear. And so they are quickly squashed.

Unfortunately, taking the “safe” route is often much more dangerous than taking calculated risks. In an environment where new ideas are constantly being shot down, innovation dies as well.

And it’s Murder on Morale

Because fear managers are perpetually afraid of what will happen to them if and when anything goes wrong, they are unable to let go of things and/or trust their teams to deliver results. Instead of letting their employees take ownership of projects and feel successful, fear managers inject themselves into every meeting, every task, and every process, micromanaging everything (and everyone) to death.

When things do go wrong, fear managers will do or say anything to deflect the blame away from themselves and onto anyone else who happens to be nearby.

So, what happens when you mix high levels of fear and control with low levels of autonomy, trust, and support? You end up with an organization full of checked-out employees who are simply going through the motions.

Having lost all of their fire and motivation, they truly are the working dead.

Don’t let this happen to you

If fear is the primary driving force in your organization, it’s time to make some changes.

First figure out what, exactly, it is that you’re afraid of. Then get your leadership team together and decide how you’re going to face those fears in a new and productive way. There may be some strategic planning involved. Maybe a leadership overhaul, or some major organizational change.

Rest assured, any and all of these things are WAY better than perpetuating a company culture that sucks the life out of your employees— and your bottom line.

Photo by Jeremy Brooks

5 Pillars of Employee-Related Expenses eBook 

Topics: Leadership + Management, HR Strategy