Fear is the key

Back in 1961, the Scottish author Alastair Maclean wrote the thriller ‘Fear is the Key’. A gripping yarn in which the protagonist, Talbot, traps two guilty men and uses their fear of imminent death to extract a full confession of guilt.

Fear of something unpleasant happening in the future is a powerful motivator. Psychologists suggest it is part of the self-preservation system that was hard-wired into humans through the evolutionary process.

Anticipation of danger develops individual alertness and readiness to act. But these ‘benefits’ are short term. Fearfulness requires a huge amount of energy to sustain, and it subordinates every other activity. In fact, it shuts down the most valuable 2/3rds of human brain activity. Leaving a person dependent on the most primitive part of their brain. The part that helps a lizard to survive while exposed on a rock!

So, we might rightly conclude that fear is not a helpful emotion to create in the workplace. Fear stifles creativity. Fear inhibits conversation. Fear prevents collaboration. Fear extinguishes hope.

Surely very few business people, be they business owners, senior managers, team leaders or human resource professionals, would wish to create a fearful organisational culture?

Maybe they don’t actively seek it but, I can assure you, they do something worse. They allow bad things to happen. People in a position to evoke positive emotion in staff, permit management and employees to behave in ways that preserve an atmosphere of fear.

Here are some manifestations of fear-based cultures that are widely permitted in modern business:

– Impossible deadlines
– Contradictory instructions
– Threats of retribution
– Public humiliations
– Relentless cycles (with no pause to reflect on learnings or celebrate achievements)

I see this, all the time, in organisations where we work to transform culture. And I now believe that the removal of fear is the key to transforming productivity. I used to think that poor communication was the Achilles Heel of collective human endeavour. It isn’t,

In the first Gulf war the commanding US General was Stormin’ Norman Schwarzkopf. He ran a headquarters where people worked shifts around the clock. Except they didn’t. When it came to the end of the ‘working day’, the General would normally retire at 10pm. So his direct reports, regardless of shift, decided to stay on duty until 11pm. Their direct reports, fearful of being absent when needed, stayed on duty until midnight. The effect cascaded to the junior staff – those needed to crunch the detail – who basically never rested.

Until the General noticed his headquarters was barely functional, and did something about it. He told people to go to bed.