I was a newly commissioned officer in the Royal Air Force when I was asked to inspect a junior airwoman. It was a task that fell to me because I was the Duty Officer that night. The formal inspection was part of her punishment for breaking some rule or other. She was ‘on a charge’. As I walked around her looking for faults in her uniform and physical presentation she stood to attention and shook with fear. Her face was red and she was on the verge of tears. It was the first time I fully recognised the power of the rank that I’d been given. I never wanted to make anyone feel like that again and I have been very careful how I’ve used my power as a leader ever since.

“I never wanted to make anyone feel like that again.”

As a result I have never deliberately attempted to instil fear in someone as a way of getting what I wanted, but some managers do. Many more of us are unaware of the ways in which we make the people that work for us fearful.

Feeling the fear

As human beings we often feel fear. We sense threats to our safety and interpret them as an emotional response and a need for action by our bodies. It’s part of our evolved survival instinct. It’s that sinking feeling in your stomach, that sudden quickening of your heart, the urge to move away from something, or that panicky inability to think at all.

All sorts of things spark those natural reactions in us every day. Most of them aren’t really threats to our very survival at all; but that doesn’t stop our bodies responding as if they were. Perhaps you’ve experienced it when attention turns to focus on you suddenly in a meeting and you’re not fully prepared, when you realise that you’ve sent an inappropriate email to the wrong addressee or when your biggest customer tells you they’re cancelling all future orders.

“The impact on our organisations is huge.”

The impact

We’ve all read about the impact that these kind of feelings can have on us as individuals if they’re not addressed, but the impact on our organisations is huge.

The lack of trust between employees and employers has been highlighted repeatedly in recent years by organisations such as ACAS and CIPD. And one of the major reasons for the distrust is that fear is often an underlying emotion at work. We don’t trust others if we also fear them, and people often fear their employers and the power they have to make decisions that affect their lives.

To illustrate the way trust and fear don’t exist together, imagine you’re an abseiling novice. You may feel fear about the risks involved and about dropping to the ground from a height if things go horribly wrong. But if you feared your instructor, you would not allow them to lower you on a rope from a great height. If you saw them drop the person that went over before you, you’d be extremely unlikely to trust them at all.  

And yet that’s what we often see in the workplace – fearful people are actively on the look out for any sign of a threat – and it’s really not helping organisations to succeed.

Fear as an inhibitor of performance

Fear is an inhibitor. It makes us behave in ways that are self-protective, non-communicative, unproductive and risk-avoiding. That’s exactly what we don’t want from our teams these days, and certainly not when we’re running an organisation that’s looking to grow and thrive.

“Fear makes us behave in ways that are self-protective, non-communicative, unproductive and risk-avoiding.”

Yet we continue to create environments where fear is prevalent. For some managers fear is even seen by some as a motivator of performance. It’s not that long since a respected business leader told me proudly how he used fear and greed as the primary motivators of his team.

The way we communicate to employees can instil fear from day one, with threats of disciplinary action for all kinds of failure written into employment contracts and staff handbooks. And there are often even more unwritten rules to find your way around once you’re in: “Don’t speak to that manager before she’s had her coffee” or “Make sure you cover you’re a**e when you’re dealing with that manager”.

Cultures that value compliance with the organisation’s rules, over people’s right to challenge the things that they feel are wrong, are ruling by fear. They are actively and systematically triggering those fear responses to get what they want from their employees, and driving out trust. 

Creating organisations without fear

We can work differently. There are transformational benefits to be gained when fear stops being part of how we manage. In organisations without fear, and therefore with greater trust, people:

·       plan for the future knowing they have the confidence of colleagues

·       engage openly and honestly with each other

·       solve problems more quickly than competitors and manage change better

·       have confidence that people feel able to approach managers

·       make difficult decisions more easily

(Extract from Building Productivity, ACAS)

Who wouldn’t want to lead an organisation where all of that was happening? So take a look at how you and your company are managing people. Do they do what you ask because they want to, or because they’re fearful of the consequences if they don’t?

Start the conversation

Why not ask your team how you can reduce fear and anxiety within your organisation? Opening up the conversation about fear will be a huge step towards building a more trusting and productive business, where everyone has a voice.