“Fail faster, succeed sooner” -David Kelley (Entrepreneur)

Fear is a naturally occurring emotion but by no means an emotion fit for every situation. From an organizational perspective, then, understanding how fear circulates and impacts group dynamics and productivity is critical.

Psychologist Silvan Tomkins—a recognized expert on the psychology of emotions—once observed that fear is an emotion for “life’s emergencies and death situations.” For this reason, fear is a highly punishing emotion and one “intended to be briefly experienced.”[i] To be fair, fear does have a function. Fear fuels adrenaline. At times, fear is precisely what enables us to make important decisions on the spot. Fear tells us to run away from danger. However, when fear lingers unnecessarily or becomes attached to things, people, or situations that do not warrant its presence, fear has the reverse effect—fear simply holds us back. This is especially true when it comes to the fear of failing. In short, while fear of fire is a form of self-preservation, fear of failure is nothing more than an abstraction—it serves no purpose other than to hold us back. To appreciate just how dangerous the fear of failing can be, consider its impact on organizational culture.

How Fear Impacts Leaders

A 2015 study by Roger Jones, the chief executive of Vantage-Hill Partners, found that fear has an insidious and deeply stifling impact on organizations. As Jones observes, “While few executives talk about them, deep and uncontrolled private fears can spur defensive behaviors that undermine how they and their colleagues set and execute company strategy.” Among other key findings, the study found that fear of incompetency or “imposter syndrome” is the most widespread fear among executives and this fear reduces confidence and “undermines relationships with other executives.” Other common fears discovered among executives included underachieving, being politically attacked by colleagues, and appearing foolish. Notably, these fears lead executives to be excessively cautious, at times dishonest and in many cases, simply cold and inaccessible. What is the impact of such behaviors on organizations? The result is a major breakdown in organizational culture. As Jones explains, when asked about the fallout from the behaviors that arise when fear is present, “The executives mentioned more than 500 consequences. Those mentioned most frequently were poor decision-making, focusing on survival rather than growth, inducing bad behavior at the next level down, and failing to act unless there’s a crisis.”[ii]

How Fear Impacts Employees

The problem with fear, however, is that fear is difficult if not impossible to contain. Where there are insecure leaders, then, there are bound to be insecure employees. Fear, like paranoia, depression, joy, and many other emotions both positive and negative, is highly contagious. Worse yet, fear is easily communicated to others (in other words, it is remarkably difficult to hide). In a nutshell, fear breeds fear. In an organization, the consequences can be catastrophic. The cautious resolve of a fearful CEO rarely remains isolated in the corner office. Whether or not they know it, leaders who fear also instill fear in their employees. The result is a workplace where employees are less likely to speak up, less likely to try out new and innovative approaches, and less likely to take or even propose the types of risk-taking behaviors and thinking that turn the ordinary into the extraordinary.

The take away is simple. When there is fear, innovation is stifled. When there is fear, people are not taking risks. Fear, in this sense, is the only true failure not necessary because fear is always a weakness but because fear—in an organizational culture—creates an environment where change and innovation are blocked. As Mark Zuckerberg encourages his Facebook employees to do, “Fail fast and try again.” Said another way, don’t fear failure but accept it as a critical part of innovation and change.

[i]  The Tomkins Institute, “Nine Affects,” http://www.tomkins.org/what-tomkins-said/introduction/nine-affects-present-at-birth-combine-to-form-emotion-mood-and-personality/

[ii] Roger Jones, “What CEOs are Afraid Of,” Harvard Business Review, Feb. 24, 2015, https://hbr.org/2015/02/what-ceos-are-afraid-of