In any organization, effective leadership is crucial to driving success and achieving goals. However, one often overlooked aspect of leadership is the role fear plays in an organization. Fear and its negative effects are present in every organization but rarely identified or measured. And when employees are afraid, they are less likely to take risks, share ideas, or give clear, honest assessments of risk. In this first article of a 3-part series, I’ll share the general effects that fear can have on your organization. And in the follow-up articles, I’ll share what can be done to identify, measure and mitigate these fears. In the end, employee fears stifles innovation, hampers collaboration, limits growth and prevents continuous improvement as detailed below.
Every organization wants to encourage innovation because of the inherent value of new inventions, products, and processes. But, if fear of failure or rejection exists, then employees will be less likely to share those ideas. This will especially be the case for your organization’s more introverted employees who are typically innovators.
With organizational fear, individuals become self-protective and guarded. Even low levels of fear can foster an us-vs.-them mentality between groups, preventing a spirit of community and collaboration. And a work environment with higher levels of fear can foster negative work behaviors such as bullying, harassment and sabotage.
With fear, team members are less likely to give clear assessments of schedules, budgets, or technical risks. This lack of transparency will show up later as schedule slippages, budget overruns and product flaws or failures. This point was illustrated recently by the OceanGate submarine implosion. OceanGate’s engineering team feared bringing up technical design flaws and inadequate testing especially after seeing David Lochridge get fired for doing exactly that. Low-level fear can show up as inaccurate Key Performance Indicators (KPIs), making it difficult for a leader to see opportunities for improvement. And without a clear picture, the focus and work of the organization will likely be misguided.
Prevents “Continuous Improvement”
A necessary first step in continuous improvement is both 1) an accurate assessment of the cost of a given problem and 2) an accurate understanding of the problem itself. When problems are hidden out of fear or the full cost of a given problem is minimized, the organization will be unaware of their biggest problems and their costs. And because these problems are minimized or not identified, they likely won’t be addressed. In the end, the organization will continue to repeat the same mistakes repeatedly.
These fears and associated negative behaviors exist in every organization. Unmitigated, the leader of a team will unknowingly foster these fears and associated negative work behaviors. In the second and third articles in this series, I’ll point out the common employee fears and the importance of organizational leadership to both assess the impact of these fears and mitigate them.