One of the most destructive forces in a company is caused by fear. Just as pollution damages the environment, fear is toxic to companies. Fear destroys creativity, shatters loyalty, and discourages people who want to “do what’s right.” While some managers use fear to stop an activity, this tactic never inspires anyone to perform at their best.
When people play it safe rather than sailing uncharted waters, they limit opportunities and often put off decision making. Moreover, fear instills a real sense of powerlessness, discouraging people from openly questioning things, challenging the status quo, or confronting someone when they think something is wrong. When people are afraid to make suggestions or say what’s on their minds, or feel that speaking up is a waste of time, innovation and creativity die.
Fear also causes people to withdraw, cover mistakes, and misrepresent facts. It teaches them to keep things close to the vest and discourages them from sticking their necks out because trying something new may leave them open to criticism. It makes employees hesitant to discuss problems with others, for fear they will leave themselves open to ridicule. In fact, according to studies, companies that promote fear destroy creativity, commitment, and confidence.
When this kind of environment is allowed to flourish, things get ugly. In these organizations more time is spent covering up tracks than working. Passing the buck and putting everything in writing become cultural norms. No one challenges the status quo, goes out on a limb, or reports problems for fear of being labeled a troublemaker. Everyone spends their lives in meetings and on committees in order to avoid decision making. People avoid responsibility like the plague. Inaction is justified as not rocking the boat or as maintaining the status quo. As time marches on, minor disturbances grow into major problems. And perhaps most important, in an age of rapid change, the inaction, procrastination, or wasted time that results from fear keeps employees from learning skills that are vital to a company’s success.
This kind of behavior will prevent many companies from becoming market leaders. According to Jack Welch, former CEO of General Electric:
“The individual who typically forces performance out of people rather than inspires it: the autocrat, the big shot, the tyrant [is no longer useful]. Too often all of us have looked the other way . . . [because these types of managers] ‘always deliver’—at least in the short term. And perhaps this type was more acceptable in easier times, but in an environment where we must have every good idea from every man and woman in the company, we cannot afford management styles that suppress and intimidate. Whether we can convince and help these managers to change—recognizing how difficult that can be—or part company with them if they cannot, will be the ultimate test of our commitment to the transformation of the Company and will determine the future of the mutual trust and respect we are building.”
In a world in which change is an everyday occurrence, business as usual is a guaranteed recipe for failure. To succeed, today’s company must go beyond coping with change; it must embrace change. Rather than react to change, today’s employees must learn to anticipate it. Those who cling to the past will meet change with apprehension and anxiety. Only those prepared to meet the challenges of change will be rewarded with unparalleled opportunities. The payoff will go to those employees who are not only committed but also ready to lead the effort. To reach the Promised Land, leaders must do everything in their power to purge fear within their organizations. What steps are you taking today toward that end?