Volume 146, September 2015: Fear: The Vicious Thief

Keyzine: An E-zine for Leaders about the People Side of Business

This is a monthly electronic magazine for anyone who wants to be a better leader, coach, facilitator, or simply, to tune up their people skills. It is a complimentary publication, devoted to the next evolution of Quality Thinking.

Publisher: © Key Associates, 2015 ISSN # 1545-8873

“‘Freedom from fear’ could be said to sum up the whole philosophy of human rights.” – Thomas Jefferson

Dr. Deming held that quality is impossible where people are afraid to tell the truth. Fearful employees will hide mistakes, misrepresent numbers, and pass on their fear to poor products and services.

Kathy Ryan and Daniel Oestrich picked up the gauntlet with a pivotal work called Driving Fear Out of the Workplace: Creating the High-Trust, High-Performance Organization (1998). They defined fear as “being threatened by possible repercussions as a result of speaking up about work-related concerns, ideas, and suggestions for improvement” (p. xviii). They cited three triggers that elevate fear and mistrust:

  1. abrasive and abusive behaviors exhibited by leaders;
  2. poorly operating HR systems which characterize a culture of mistrust, bias, and control;
  3. mixed messages, where there is a misalignment of what leaders say, believe, and do.

Furthermore, these issues are hidden under a veil of undiscussability (secrets that everyone knows). The fear of repercussions may be perceived, imagined, or even justified. The reluctance creates negativity, anger, and frustration. People fear talking about fear.

How can leaders combat a culture of fear? Make these imperatives:

  • Share personal thoughts and experiences.
  • Show the extent to which the leader is seen as being fallible and vulnerable.
  • Establish positive group norms.
  • Demonstrate acceptance of individual differences in the thoughts and behaviors of others.
  • Involve others in decision-making (collaboration).
  • Empower others.
  • Be sensitive to the needs of others.
  • Use active listening. Be open to new ideas and feedback.
  • Be willing to address “sacred cows,” the undiscussables.
  • Be consistent in behavior; reduce ambiguous behavior.
  • Value criticism, never “killing the messengers” of bad news.
  • Be honest and provide as much clear information as possible.
  • Communicate positive intent and nurture a safe environment for others.

And there are others (Power read Kathleen Ryan‘s chapter on Trust)

Practice Point

Examine where you (and your team) are on the Oestrich and Ryan’s gray scale of “What Leaders Do to Threaten Employees.” Create a list of those aspects relevant to your team. Set out to eradicate all subtle forms of promoting fear.

(The scale below is ranked from least threatening to most threatening.)

  1. Silence
  2. Glaring eye contact: “the look”
  3. Brevity or abruptness
  4. Snubbing or ignoring people
  5. Insults and put downs
  6. Blaming, discrediting, or discounting
  7. An aggressive, controlling manner
  8. Threats about the job
  9. Yelling and shouting
  10. Angry outbursts or loss of control
  11. Physical threats


Buy MK’s latest book!