“There is no data showing that anxious, fearful employees are
more creative and productive, but there is data proving that employees
in a threatening environment are less engaged, less loyal and for the
most part miserable.”
This post is inspired by Bill Maher. Yes, that’s right, Bill Maher,
the irreverent, super-sharp, potty mouthed host of the long running HBO
cable TV series, Real Time.
Every week Bill does something called New Rules, where he chooses a
topic that he highlights with an outrageous and dead-on 3 minute rant.
This week’s topic focused on the American worker and his/her curious
relationship to taking time off from work. I’ll give you a few minutes
here so that you can see the short clip.
Bill concludes that the American worker, “the most productive in the world,” is just plain scared. Too scared to take a vacation and too scared to relax – even for a day.
He points to other major developed countries where workers
enjoy generous “holidays” and ample time off. Even tiny Sri Lanka,
Maher extols, has 21 days paid vacation leave for their workers. What
ticks off Maher is that far from being pissed off about their modest
vacation benefits – many Americans aren’t even complaining, they’re
criticizing other countries as being lazy and unproductive. Why don’t we get it – Maher asks.
Fear as a Cultural Disease
I’ve spent considerable words writing about fear in these pages.
My views on the destructive and insidious impact of fear on our
psyches, bodies and cultures are well-known. Yet, I find myself drawn
to this topic once again. Fear’s damage is evident everywhere on this
Because fear sells it’s pervasive in most cultures. A 24/7 global
information cycle brought to us by a wired world, brings us in touch, in
real-time, with often devastating news and portends of deadly
contagious bacteria that are on the rise. While some of this
information is vital to our social well-being and under the best of
circumstances enhances awareness that increases sensible action, much of
it leaves us overwhelmed.
According to author Judith Acosta, “Viral
fear, that generalized anxiety induced and spread by the media in all
forms, is evident not only in advertising but in television programming
and films. For the thoroughly inured and brain-injured there’s also a
24-7 fear channel on cable in case someone needs to scare themselves to
Fear contagion (all emotions are contagious, but fear packs a heavy
physiological punch) is dangerous because when we’re emotionally
overwhelmed, there’s a real danger of paralysis to action. Add to that
the stimulus bombardment in the average daily life and you get a recipe
for serious energy drain. This sets up a series of coping strategies
that we adapt to just to get through the day. Depending on the
resiliency of our will and psychological disposition, it can lead people
to live a life of chronic anxiety – waiting for the other shoe to drop.
New York University neuroscience and psychology professor, Joseph
Ledoux recently advanced the distinction between fear and anxiety in a
New York Times article titled, Searching the Brain for the Roots of Fear, “Fear
and anxiety are in the brain because they helped our ancestors cope
with life’s challenges. But when these states interfere with our ability
to survive and thrive, one has anxiety disorder.”
What we have come to accept as normal in cultures where fear
is a dominant energizing force is constantly reinforced by values and
beliefs that are largely communicated through rationalization. We reach
adulthood with a system of beliefs about how things work, especially
the big things, – money, work, relationships, parenting, health and
people – without challenging the validity of what we’ve introjected from
our early experience.
Ledoux points out that “While anxiety is defined by uncertainty,
human anxiety is greatly amplified by our ability to imagine the future
and our place in it. With imagination we can ruminate over that yet to
be experienced, possibly impossible scenario. We use this creative
capacity to great advantage when we envision how to make our lives
better, but we can just as easily put it to work in less productive ways
– worrying excessively about the outcome of things.”
“It is not necessary to change. Survival is not mandatory.”
W. Edwards Deming
I’ll step out on a limb here to say that from my perspective, fear is
one of the key emotions that drives most workplaces. Most work
environments are hothouses of fear-based emotions. Although,
individuals bring their fear baggage with them into the workplace, the
systems they find themselves in negatively trigger and reinforce latent
fears that result in counter productive behaviors.
John Wenger, author of the excellent Quantum Shifting blog, writes, “In
many businesses, the fear is palpable. Managers at all levels behave in
ways that communicate, either directly or by implication, that people
should not challenge the boss, challenge the status quo or give honest
feedback. I’ve seen businesses where people fear doing or saying
anything that might damage their career prospects, where they worry
about being excluded from decision-making because their ideas might seem
a little too crazy and therefore an inconvenience to conventional
thinking or where they are concerned about being judged for an idea that
is not clever enough. They see managers as task-masters as opposed to
leaders who are there to assist them.”
There exists a great paradox between today’s organizational aspirations and the day-to-day reality of life on the ground.
Passion, engagement, talent management, paradigm shifts, growth and
sustainability are words that all speak to an elevated vision of
organizational cultures that rarely exist in practice. These noble
ideas can only be cultivated in environments that tangibly promote
The reality is that most organization cultures still resist the primacy of emotions as the currents that generate all of these desirable
visions. We’re still locked into ideas about work and business that pit
individual needs vs. corporate goals. We talk the language of teams and
shared responsibility but most employees understand they are on a
constant proving ground where the “personal” is still viewed as outside
the business model.
Power – Fear’s Shield
former chief architect for Gallup’s global efforts to remove barriers
to success, has examined dozens of organizations to understand how fear
permeates systems. Fear based patterns, Rieger explains, are similar
across organizations, “As companies
grow and divide up responsibilities, people feel endowed with control
over certain departments and that endowment leads to a desire to
protect, which leads to barriers. In fact, the biggest threat to a
company’s success isn’t necessarily its competition. A lot of times,
it’s the fear that lives within its own walls.”
Well before the time we are in elementary school, most children
understand, at least, viscerally, about power. We’re either struggling
to gain it or keep it. But few children are taught to understand what it
means – where their real power comes from and how the culture around
them views power. We use the power but don’t explore the meaning.
I sometimes ask my clients to make a list of where they believe their
power comes from. Then I ask them to rank their power source items into
two columns, internal and external. You’re guessing correctly if you
think that the internal power source list is much smaller than the external list. Money, position and status related items top the externals list.
Many clients remark that they’ve never thought about internal power
prior to this exercise. Yet, every day, those in positions of leadership
make decisions that affect the power balance of entire groups
without taking the fragile perceptions of those affected into account.
At the core, these power arrangements are the basis of the beliefs we
uphold and are causal in our choices.
The webs of power and fear are complex. According to Tom Rieger, “Departments
begin to view their world as the piece and not the puzzle. That causes a
loss of connection to the overall outcome but promotes a connection to a
small part of the process, and there is no regard for how decisions
affect other departments. Then, self-sufficiency becomes threatened, so
people begin to seize control of others or decisions or resources to
Even though fear’s everywhere,
embedded in every nook and cranny of the culture, we still have choices
in terms of how to respond. First stop on this journey to liberate
ourselves from fear is to own it. Open the closet and basement doors
and stare fear in the face. Denial and rationalization are stuck
places. Recognize when fear is driving you – in the workplace, relationships and in the every day choices you make in living your life.
I leave you with a quote from one of my heroes, Burmese opposition leader, Aung San Suu Kyi.
Under house arrest in Burma for over two decades, kept apart from her
life in Oxford, England and her husband and sons, Suu Kyi was released
in 2010. In the past few days, she finally got to Oslo to claim the
Nobel Peace Prize awarded to her in 1991 and to visit Oxford to receive
the Honorary Degree given to her by the University in recognition of her
enormous contribution to standing for freedom in the face of brutal
“The only real prison is fear, and the only real freedom is freedom from fear.”