The Impact of Fear on Performance

If you want to learn about courage, invariably you must also learn about fear. Courage and fear have a strong and interwoven relationship. Most typically, when we choose to behave courageously, we are choosing to engage with fear. And engage we should. No other emotion has as much of an obliterating effect on performance as fear. Despite that fact, fear flourishes in workplace settings.

Few places are as fraught with fear as work, and few sources of fear are as potent as the behavior of leaders. When leaders stoke people’s fears to get things done, they reinforce the age-old hierarchical construct of dominance and submission. Even in the 21st Century, many workplaces still use terms like “superior” and “subordinate.” If you slow down your language and think about it, by describing your boss as your “superior,” what does that make you? Inferior?

Fear Impacts Performance

In many workplaces, fear, sadly, is the preferred method that leaders use to motivate people to do things. But fear is not just localized to the behavior of leaders and often permeates the entire organizational system. Performance appraisal systems are largely unidirectional, cascading in a straight line from the top down, and are often focused less on raising up performance and more on checking up on performance. Time reporting systems ensure that the moment-by-moment activities of each and every worker are tracked and accounted for. Elaborate and expensive software systems are implemented so workers’ emails and Internet usage can be monitored. And in some workplace settings, workers are subject to random drug testing.

Regardless of how justified such systems may be, collectively they serve to convey two powerful messages to the workforce:

  1. We are watching you.
  2. You are not trusted.

When infused throughout the entire workplace, the suspicion and anxiety created by this lack of trust can create a fear-based organization.

Fear is Bad for Business

Despite its prevalence as a primary motivational tool, fear is bad for business. While fear may temporarily motivate workers to toil harder, faster, or longer, it also shuts down their willingness to take the necessary risks that innovation, new product development, and sales, for example, require. Fear clams workers up, shutting down the flow of feedback that is so necessary for keeping leaders from making wrongheaded decisions. On a larger scale, fear—often under the guise of “healthy” internal competition—puts up walls between company divisions, causing workers to horde knowledge to keep their divisions from losing. Not incidentally, fearful work environments aren’t much fun to work in either.

The total costs of fear, if they could be monetized, would be so staggering that any right-minded organization would reject fear as a strategy for motivating performance.

Does your workplace lead with fear? What systems or practices might actually be making workers feel fearful, anxious, or unsafe? How about your boss? Does he or she lead with fear? In what ways? More importantly, what about YOU? Are you creating a work environment where people feel physically, emotionally, and psychologically safe?

Photo by Daria Shevtsova on Unsplash.

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