Organisation of fear

Photo by Aaron Blanco

Master Yoda was right: “Fear the way to the dark side is”. Many leaders still follow Caesar’s motto “Oderint dum metuant – should they only hate me, may they only fear me”. But does that really work?

The current developments in society as well as in companies teach us better.

But there are many reasons to be afraid at work: Fear of being left behind by the competition, fear and job and career, fear of legal prosecution. Alone, fear is not a good teacher.

Fear causes to switch from our rational cerebrum Cortex to the animal Amygdala. And our archaic reptilian brain knows essentially only two options for action: Fight or flight. In the professional environment, neither of them is a good tactic.

The effects can be felt everywhere. In the case of Boeing, they even led to 346 deaths and billions in losses. The final balance is still open.

Managers are educated not to show fear. Fear is seen as a sign of weakness and is therefore taboo, especially for a leader.

An essential step towards consciously dealing with fear is to make the difference between fear and concerns. Fear paralyzes us and puts us into emotion. Concerns help us to consciously deal with risks. We can evaluate these rationally with effects and probabilities and thus make them controllable in our professional environment. Fear simply paralyzes us in our actions.

In a culture of fear, employees develop two lines of defense:

  1. It’s not my area of responsibility
  2. It’s not my fault

Once such a culture has been established, problems are covered up – and thus enlarged. An old rule of thumb from project management says that the cost of solving a problem increases by an order of magnitude at every stage of development. This means that the elimination of a design error costs 10 times as much during development 100 times in testing and 1000 times more in production. So, we do well to detect and correct errors as early as possible – and to create the appropriate open culture for this.

Indeed, nobody has yet been promoted for a mistake. However, I know of many who have proven their excellence in crisis situations – and have been rewarded for this. A company’s board member once coined the phrase “Crisis is a chance for Can-Doers”.

Besides, fear paralyzes any innovation. No progress is possible without mistakes. When the engineers at Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing tested a new super adhesive for industry, they were frustrated: The tests with the paper strips showed that the adhesive did not adhere super at all, but was simply removable. What a failure.

Today, over 50 billion Post-Its are sold annually. 3M has risen to become the market leader for professional stationery – and yes, in the meantime they also have solutions for really well-fitting adhesive joints.

So, failures always offer a chance – to excel or to develop a whole new business model. Post-it’s are a good reminder for this.

How about you?

  • What is the error culture like in your company?
  • What are you afraid of?
  • Are they driven by fear or are you consciously working together to realize your vision for your customers, professionally assessing the business risks?

Further interesting reads:

Günther Wagner: Wer erfolgreich sein will braucht Mut – mehr denn je (German)

INSEAD: Does Your Organisation Run on Fear?

The Sweet Potato Consultancy: How to spot if you are working in a fear-driven organisation

Paul Brown: The Fear Free Organization: How to Use Insights from Neuroscience to Transform Your Business

Translation into English supported by DeepL and Grammarly

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