How Fear Prevents Change

When people talk about fear in the workplace they are not talking about the same scary feeling you get when watching a horror film. The fear I’m referring to occurs in the workplace and it certainly creates a feeling. The feeling it creates causes information hoarding, reporting wrong figures, inhibited suggestions, reduced contributions, increased alienation, mistrust, and anxiety.  Fear and anxiety are two of the strongest factors inhibiting change and preventing people from doing their best. There is a difference between fear and anxiety.  People feel anxiety about the unknown. People feel fear because of something specific and identifiable even if imagined. Anxiety is caused by something unidentifiable. Both are destructive. Fear is the Great Wall of Change. When people become afraid to contribute and participate in a company, change is nearly impossible. What causes fear? Why does fear prevent change? How can we identify its existence? What can we do about it? 

Causes of Fear

Fear comes from a number of sources: From rewards and recognition practices to complicated approval processes. It comes from mangers blaming others for mistakes and from performance appraisals. It comes from measurement systems such as ratings, rankings, quotas, and unreachable goals. It comes from short-term thinking and quick fixes. It comes from superiors making subordinates feel inferior and from suggestions that fall on deaf ears. It comes from punishment, and from confusion about what to do.  It comes from lack of support and big egos.

The list is practically endless. So many “little” things can trigger fear within an organization. Over time these little things accumulate, and fear creeps its way into the organization. Fear in older and larger companies is subtle because as people enter the company and move into new positions, they make changes. Some of these changes are attempted with good intentions. Unfortunately, without understanding how the changes create fear (or even that it creates fear in the first place), it goes unnoticed. For instance, at the time, a new approval process requiring five signatures on a purchase order might seem like a good idea.  Now a new employee comes in and thinks, “gee, it’s like the Pentagon around here.” This type of approval process sends the signal that people can’t be trusted to make purchasing decisions on their own. Some argue that it is good business practice to have approvals because it protects the interests of the company.  Although this sounds reasonable, it completely misses the point. If someone has authority to make purchases on the company’s behalf, then they should be given guidelines for those purchases and trusted that they will protect the interests of the company.  If they can’t be trusted, they should not have the responsibility. Will people make mistakes? Absolutely. To think otherwise is naïve. But, with five signatures, who is responsible for the purchase order?  Everyone thinks someone else on the signature list is responsible. No one has ownership.  Absence of ownership breeds discontent and lack of trust.  Lack of trust breeds fear. Lack of trust (caused by fear) makes people wonder about management’s ulterior motives behind every change or “improvement.” Then the rumor mill starts to churn, and very quickly. What once seemed like a good idea backfires. 

This is why Dr. W. Edwards Deming, one of the founders of the quality movement in the United States, included driving out fear as one of his 14 points to quality. Deming thought fear was one of the greatest obstacles to sustained performance. Fear, he said, caused people to fudge figures and cover up mistakes. Exactly the opposite actions you want in your company if you want to improve performance.  The only way to sustain quality and performance is by identifying problems and making improvements to those problems. Fear causes management to view their organization through rose-colored glasses, because no one wants to admit or expose deficiencies. They are unaware of problems because fear gets in the way of allowing problems to surface until a crisis arises. Suddenly, management starts questioning everything surrounding the crisis. The crisis causes management to put in place controls so the “crisis” won’t occur again. Unfortunately, the new controls cause other problems or sends misinterpreted signals about what is important to management, which further reinforces fear.  With so many things breeding fear, distrust, and anxiety it’s no wonder management has a hard time implementing changes and improvements.

Fear Prevents Change

When faced with change, people quickly react with thoughts of how things will be different. They wonder how the change will affect them, what they will need to do different, and what expectations others will have of them. These feelings are natural and should be expected.  However, if your organization promotes fear through blame, judgment, or finger pointing, change becomes a monumental task.

When people are not comfortable contributing ideas because they are afraid of being judged or ridiculed, then the organization is not using resources to its fullest potential. If you work in an environment of fear, then change is very difficult because it means learning something new. Learning something new means potential mistakes are likely to occur.  Mistakes, then, mean blame, ridicule, judgment, humiliation, and inferiority. In this type of environment, how can people expect to be creative or try something new or learn something new?  How does a company succeed and grow without creativity or personal growth?

Not many people will readily admit to being afraid of making mistakes. After all, most of us probably feel we don’t make mistakes.  Mistakes occur because of outside forces – we think. This viewpoint is called fundamental attribution (yes there is actually a name for it). Fundamental attribution is our tendency to attribute favorable outcomes to ourselves as caused by our internal qualities…while seeing our unfavorable outcomes as caused by external forces beyond our control.[i] In reality, we all make mistakes at one time or another. No one likes or even intends to make a mistake. But the fact is mistakes do occur and it’s usually irrelevant who caused the mistake, more important is what, in the system, caused the mistake and how can we prevent it from occurring in the future (assuming it is a unique mistake and not a normal variation in the system). 

Most leaders don’t view mistakes this way. Rather, they first seek to find a person to assign blame, and then make an example out of that person. This type of response prevents people from welcoming new ideas and changes because of the consequences they may face if things don’t go according to plan. A better idea is to create an environment where people learn from mistakes, and openly discuss mistakes so others can learn from them as well. This allows change from management to be more acceptable to people, or at least a little less uncomfortable.

Identifying Fear

Start-ups have an opportunity to prevent fear from proliferating if they identify it early. Older companies, however, have a much more difficult time identifying the inherent causes of fear. To eliminate fear management needs to first look at everything they do and the accompanying processes. 

Below is a list that may be helpful in identifying fear in your organization:

·            Are there excessive approvals for simple purchases such as office supplies?

·            What is the approval process for requesting time off?

·            Does your annual review process reinforce pleasing the boss?

·            Is there an emphasis on short-term thinking?

·            Do you use a ranking system of any kind?

·            Do people hoard information?

·            Is there excessive finger pointing?

·            Do you use quotas?

·            Are people’s opinions sought after more than facts and data?

·            Are people confused about where they fit in?

·            Does everyone clearly understand the goals of the organization?

·            How often does everyone (including the front-line) make suggestions for improvement?

·            How is your suggestion process handled?

·            What consequences exist if a person or department does not reach a goal?

·            Ask people what they think it takes to get ahead in the organization. (More effective if asked by an outsider)

·            Are you rewarding “heroes” for fighting fires?

·            What is the typical response when someone makes a mistake?

·            What is your turnover rate? (Compared to other companies in your industry)

There are number of other questions that one could add to this list, but it is a good start. Once you’ve identified that fear exists (and almost invariably you will) what do you do?

What To Do About Fear

When you have identified that fear exists you need to establish a way to systematically drive it out of your organization. A great way to start is to call an all-hands meeting with management and simply admit that it exists, then talk about fear and get people’s reaction. Can you exhort fear out of the organization?  No, so begin by identifying the policies, procedures, and processes that reinforce fear and/or create distrust.  Work on some of the easier things to change, the low hanging fruit. This will demonstrate to everyone that you are serious about driving out fear. If you wait too long to begin making changes, people will lose interest and think it’s just another management program. Question every rule, constraint, and approval.  Ask yourselves why these exist. Many procedures exist to prevent mistakes or eliminate the possibility of someone taking advantage of the company. Many times, however, these rules don’t prevent or eliminate anything. What happens is someone creates a procedure because of a 5% or 2% chance of something bad happening. So you need to question whether the cost of this procedure justifies the 5% or 2% possibility of occurrence. Companies spend billions of dollars creating a bureaucracy that is either outdated, unnecessary, or overkill based on a small chance of an unlikely event. Eventually, management creates so many rules and constraints on top of existing rules and constraints that everyone forgets the reason for the original controls.

At the same time, you’ll want to be formulating plans to alter other more complicated processes. A common pitfall occurs when management begins making changes to the easier processes only to hit a brick wall when they encounter a very complicated process. Momentum stalls, everyone loses interest and the whole thing collapses. Better to begin preliminary work on the complicated processes so when you exhaust changes to the easier ones, you will be ready to tackle the complicated ones without losing momentum.

Removing reinforcements of fear from policies, procedures, and processes is only the beginning. It is the easiest place to start and is essential for permanent change. There are other, not so apparent places to look to begin driving out fear:

  1. The mirror. Look at your own style of management to determine if you are contributing to fear.  This is not an easy thing to do since many of us can’t fathom we need to improve in this area.  After all, you are in a position as the boss because you’re so great – right? 
  2. Look at your reward and recognition system. What types of behavior does your organization reward?  What types of behavior does your organization not reward? Who is recognized? When? Do you even have a recognition system in place?
  3. Look at your punishment system. What types of behavior does your organization punish? How much latitude do people have to make mistakes?
  4. Look at your decision process. How do people go about making decisions? Are decisions proactive or reactive? If reactive, is the response abrasive? Do you show your frustration or impatience?
  5. How much ownership do people have in their job? Are your employees always waiting for a response from you on what to do next?  If so, it may be because they are afraid of making a mistake.

Fear is a very powerful force preventing change and reducing leadership effectiveness, so driving out fear should be at the top of your list of personal and organizational change initiatives.



[i] Tom Coens and Mary Jenkins, Abolishing Performance Appraisals: Why They Backfire and What To Do Instead (San Francisco, CA; Berrett-Koehler, 2000), p. 60