Harnessing Fear, But Positively

I’d bet you know of and have even experienced those too-numerous self-proclaimed leaders who’ve weaponized fear as their prime motivator—to remain in control, divide potential resistance, spur actions they want to see and negate those that they don’t. Fear-based leadership is not rampant in politics but also pervasive within many families, in organizations and specifically in safety.  

But just as “for every action, there’s an equal and opposite reaction,” I’ve noticed a positive backlash, a countering trend to proclaim better, more effective ways to achieve results. Perhaps this mindset has emerged from experiencing and seeing the limitations of fear-based leadership? Note the plethora of reveals on LinkedIn describing some incredibly invasive, autocratic, domination-seeking stories of former bosses. And how those posting vow to never work for those kinds of leaders again. 

Or perhaps some have read or heard from acclaimed leaders that it doesn’t have to be that way, that there are actual alternatives to leading-by-fear. For example, Andrew Grove, former Intel CEO wrote “Fear never motivates peak performance, only minimal performance.” Numerous studies also bear out Grove's point that fear indeed lowers overall performance on many dimensions.  

And one of quality-legend’s W. Edwards Deming’s “14 Points for Management” was: “Drive out fear, so that everyone may work effectively for the company.” His point being that when people are afraid of being the target of “shoot the messenger,” they’re less likely to provide the honest data and feedback leaders require to make needed course corrections to unfulfilled plans or changing conditions. So, direction-setting and decision-making suffer—deteriorating limited resources, opportunity openings and leadership credibility. 

I’ve seen the results of fear-based leadership too many times with too many companies. Fear-instigating leaders quashing creativity (which requires thinking of and trying out new and unproven methods). Torpedoing self-confidence in workers (likely the very intent of an authoritarian boss). People spending far too much time covering their rears (leaving less time to actually focus on higher quality performance), amping up rumor mills and leading to those organizational members with higher self-esteem leaving for more pleasant pastures. And to lots of bad-talking, remaining and sworn off workers warning off their friends and peers from taking a position with intimidating bosses and their enabling company. Not good when trying to recruit new organizational members when workers are at a premium.  

Of course, there are all kinds of reasons why some leaders regularly employ fear. I assume these people are likely insecure and consumed with fear themselves (imposter syndrome? afraid of being challenged?), or maybe more interested in dominating/controlling others and the appearance of self-importance than they are of attaining higher results. Perhaps they’re just unaware and defaulting to a pre-existing or “inherited” communication trough (doing unto others what was done unto them?). Or possibly, they’re just not that good at motivation or not knowing alternatives.  

Specifically, safety motivation has long been founded on fear, attempting-by-default to scare people into “being safe.” This is typically based on the potential consequences of loss. As in, “Wear your PPE so you don’t (pick one or make up your own): die/lose an eye/live the remainder of your life in a wheelchair.” “Follow all policies and procedures or else you’ll get embarrassed in front of others/written up/disciplined/sent home without pay/fired.” I’d bet you get the idea—and have seen variations of this. 

But fear can be an ally and a gain. Here’s how: 

*“Be a Warrior, Not a Worrier.” My own fears, when I honestly recognize these, can spur action to double-check if I’ve missed something in my planning. As long as I don’t over-dwell on every unlikely possible thing that could go wrong. Or become dear-in-headlight paralyzed with indecision due to fear of any consequences locking me up. Beware over-contingency planning. 

*Recognize that, as my colleague and expert change agent Paul McClellan contends, “The most important culture is the one you’re not seeing.” Doing “fear-checks” (might label it something else?) can be a useful way to unearth issues that leaders can address. Sometimes it’s best to ask, “Is there anything, any potential risks/safety issues you’re concerned might happen? What?” rather than “What are you afraid might hurt you?”—especially with certain groups who might not wish to identify “being afraid.” Ironically, I’ve found that the safer and less fearful people feel overall, the more likely they’ll reveal their concerns. 

*Note that when workers clam up/are unwilling to discuss any concerns/play it close to the vest, this often signals high levels of potentially dysfunctional, potentially hampering fear. Time for leaders to consider how to create safer environments (e.g. one-on-one relaxed/low-paced conversations away from peers) where workers have an opportunity to open up about any underlying issues in doing their jobs safely. 

*Leaders might sincerely inquire about both hidden physical risks, as well as cultural ones (e.g. workers feeling reluctant to not report incidents due to being embarrassed by co-workers or from peer pressure to not undermine group safety incentives, etc.). 

Fear undercuts empowerment. But being dispassionately aware of fears can be a great benefit to changing the hidden safety culture, as in, seeing potential problems in order to head them off.  

While it’s impossible to eliminate fear in personal or organizational life as long as we’re alive, wise leaders find ways to better monitor unsureness and fears. And to then utilize these as signals for what others are thinking, where they direct their attention, what they do or avoid—and to plan for corrective actions to help people live and work safer, more effective, with less unnecessary stress and with greater self-control.  

This article originally appeared in the June 2022 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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