Fear isn’t pleasant, and it definitely isn’t productive. There’s ample evidence that being scared compromises our decision making, our wellbeing and our creativity. It might seem obvious that a leader should attempt to remove fear from an organisation as a result.
You can see it in the popular concept of psychological safety – the feeling of being free to speak up without negative consequences – which Google identified as the common thread in its highest performing teams.
But is it possible to go too far? Can motivation exist with only carrots, and no sticks? Behind every employer-employee relationship and every rule that exists in business, no matter how thickly shrouded they are behind words of collaboration and empowerment, is the threat if you do not comply, there will be negative consequences.
This isn’t always bad. The financial sector is criss-crossed with strict rules, backed by sanctions, and still we ended up with Nick Leeson breaking Barings Bank and the fiendish toxic asset bundles that sparked the global financial crisis. Imagine what it would look like if you lessened the fear associated with taking these risks.
Good fear vs bad fear
In a sense, there are two types of fear, one that we need to banish, and one that we actually need, just a little.
"There’s a lot of talk of fear and bravery in the creative industries," says Nils Leonard, acclaimed former chairman and chief creative officer of ad agency Grey London, and founder of Uncommon. "As my wife likes to say, you don’t get to talk about bravery, you make adverts. Firemen get to talk about bravery. Ultimately, the real reason people talk about fear and bravery in my industry is because we’re all worried about what someone else thinks."
Fear of embarrassment isn’t entirely pointless – it maintains cultural norms; the greater the fear, the tighter the culture will be – but if you’re seeking the everyday creativity that underpins all good businesses, it’s hardly desirable.
Leonard contrasts that with the legitimate fear of business death that should stalk every one of us – the very real prospect that a hungrier, smarter rival with a superior strategy will eat your lunch and make you extinct.
"There’s a great quote in Death of Salesman, where [the character Willy] says to his son ‘the woods are burning’, to try to hurry him out of his torpor. I would argue the woods are burning in everyone’s industry right now, and there’s real motivation there for change. If you’re fuelled by panic to escape, then you’ll do incredible, incredible things.
"My view is that if the woods really are burning and carrying on like we are is death, then surely anybody putting any idea on the table is only ever going to be a positive. Therefore [the first kind of fear] is removed. Our job as leaders isn’t to make people brave, it’s to remove that concept of fear."
The implication there is that the awareness of the urgent, common threat can actually make it easier for a leader to remove the fear of more mundane things like embarrassment. In that sense, it also makes it easier to empower people, reducing the risk of taking action by increasing the relative risk of inaction.
Fear has its uses then, but only if it’s of the right type and in the right dose. It won’t suffice without something positive to complement it. Burning woods may get people moving, but without a destination in mind, they will be directionless.
"You need purpose, and you need to give it emotional teeth," says Leonard, pointing to the need for employees to feel they’re doing something that matters. "I think the best CEOs do that. They rally everybody from the receptionists to the janitor around this sense of why they exist in the world."
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