“What are you afraid of?”
As a performance coach, I ask this question a lot. In most businesses, fear makes the world go round. Love should do that––yes, even in business––but more on love later.
Time and time again, when I ask someone why they didn’t say what needed to be said, ask what needed to be asked, or do what needed to be done, the answer is some version of, “Well, I was afraid of” fill in the blank:
I was afraid of what people might think of me.
I was afraid of how my boss would react.
I was afraid I could be wrong.
I was afraid of making someone else wrong.
I was afraid of appearing too aggressive.
I was afraid of appearing egotistical.
I was afraid of making others uncomfortable.
I was afraid of putting someone on the spot.
I was afraid of causing a confrontation.
The list is endless.
Fear is the most destructive force in the universe, and that includes business. I find fear is most prevalent in large organizations within which I’ve coached, where fear drives absolutely everything. Virtually every thought, every decision, every action is motivated by fear of something or someone. You can imagine the impact this has on performance, let alone the quality of life experienced by those working in these companies.
Who raised these people? Were they not taught that we are each responsible for doing, saying, and asking what is right, regardless of the personal consequences?
Here’s the truth: they were raised by loving parents who taught them right from wrong. The problem isn’t their upbringing. It’s their leaders.
Far too many leaders thrive on fear. They cultivate it and use it to manipulate people. Whenever I’ve confronted such a leader––a rarity since these types of leaders avoid interacting with anyone who will tell them the truth––they always assert, “A little fear is a good thing. It keeps people in line.”
These fear mongers have bought into the idea that people must be directed and controlled to produce results. The irony is that they’ve embraced this paradigm because they fear that if they don’t, people won’t perform. They’re also afraid of learning how to lead in another way.
When I’m in the presence of such a leader, I see a frightened little boy or girl underneath the self-assured facade. They’re terrified of being authentic, scared to love those they lead, and afraid to change. They’re the worst to work with and for––and by far the most difficult to coach.
Unfortunately, they’re also everywhere, especially in traditional organizations where the good ole boy network still thrives, and who you know and what they think of you speaks louder than your performance.
An extreme example: I came across an executive at a consulting firm who coerced his people into walking alone with him before the sun came up––as early as 3 or 4 a.m. An historical aside: Adolf Hitler employed the same technique. All of this executive’s people complied, even though most didn’t want to. When I asked them why, they all responded, “Because he determines my fate.”
Here’s the thing: no one determines your fate but you.
If you currently work in an organization with leaders like that executive, I’ve got some bad news. That form of leader is just about impossible to coach and almost never willing to even consider changing. Many are narcissistic, and any psychologist will tell you that the last person they want to see walk into their office is a narcissist. They’re considered un-treatable. They’re prisoners of fear, often carrying deep-seated feelings of unworthiness. If you stay around them too long, you run the risk of becoming their cellmate.
My advice? Run away as soon as you can. Find a leader who understands that love, not fear, is the way to move people to reach their potential and produce extraordinary results. While searching, don’t seek merely the comfort of a good salary and great benefits. Look for a leader who inspires you. When you’re in the presence of these men and women, you’ll know it. You’ll feel cared for and appreciated not just for the work you can do for them, but for who you are.
Hi Cort – another great addition to your blog – thank you! This one brought me back to my beginning with Equilibria and our initial weeks of training with the new team slated for the Gulf. I was terrified of you. I suspect it was largely due to the incredible opportunity that EQ represented (so much to lose), my own feelings of inadequacy, a new leader who was substantially different from past leaders – lots of complexity. I also remember very clearly when you broke the fear cycle for me, and that is why I am writing.
After I had been given my initial assignment (to take the India from South Africa into its start up position with CVX), we arranged an opportunity to meet with the immediate leadership team from CVX / TOI in charge of the rig. We met with them (you were a silent participant in the meeting) and had a great start-up conversation with them, from which I left feeling elated. Your comment to me immediately after was simply, “You are fast becoming my favorite of the coaches…”. It strikes me now, after reading today’s blog that it was the one on one, personal, and encouraging nature of that comment that made it so effective. I believe that this is one of those things that an effective leader should do when they are new and when trying to establish a culture where fear will significantly hold back performance, and it should be done one on one for maximum impact. Used in conversation with a group, it will lose impact as many will consider it to be delivered to someone else!
Thanks as always for a great start to the day! I am still available for further opportunities with you as they fit. All the best!
What an insightful comment, Ken. I remember those days well––and yes, I think you’re absolutely right. Connecting on a personal level is one of the first and most important steps in disrupting a culture of fear. Thanks for sharing here!
BTW Ken, you’re still one of my favorite coaches and people; and you can be very proud of the work you did with the India. Stay tuned, some upcoming post will delve deeper into the fear topic and will also explore some alternatives that are much more effective.
Great post Cort! Leaders who lead by fear need someone to respond to their need to see the fear. Otherwise, they are not leading. The only leader that needs to change is you – as you said – so don’t give the expected response. Lack of that response will at minimum not encourage your leader’s behavior. I believe we have responsibility to discourage this type of leadership and we are the only ones who actually keep it going by fueling support through our compliance. In the end, love for people always wins, it may take time and that is what we need to be patient about.
Such a smart point, Vesna. If you’re being lead by someone who uses fear, it’s up to you to resist and change the culture — love this. Thanks for reading!