The impact of fear can range from simple frustration to life threatening issues. Two recent stories pulled from recent headlines highlight the dramatic impacts that fear can play. The January 2019 Brumadinho Dam disaster in Brazil that killed 275 people could have been prevented if more employees felt comfortable raising red flags. The current Coronavirus in China could have been contained sooner if local officials felt comfortable bringing bad news up the bureaucratic chain.
There is no doubt that these are extreme examples of what can result when fear becomes a way of operating but the lessons translate to what can happen when fear permeates a leadership team.
Fear on leadership teams comes in many shapes and sizes, but most times it has the same negative impact. Some fear shows up as overt emotional outbursts—”Your department is awful; how could you have let that happen?” Other times fear shows up as passive aggressive treatment—”I feel like I have been put in the penalty box for months and being passed over for a promised promotion proves it.” Often fear shows up dismissively—”I know the survey suggested that there is a lack of trust on our team but that was because of the time of year it was administered.”
Amy Edmondson, author of The Fearless Organization and a Harvard Business School professor, has devoted years of research and writing to the topic of fear. She suggests that creating psychological safety in the workplace strengthens learning, innovation and growth. Members of psychologically safe workplaces fear holding back their full participation more than they fear sharing a potentially sensitive, threatening or wrong idea.[i] A 2014 Google study agreed with Edmondson’s premise and sited psychological safety as the number one characteristic of a great team at Google.
Fear on leadership teams is generated from a few destructive constructs—insecurity, laziness and autocratic views. Team members who are insecure feel threatened by teammates who “rock the boat” or present ideas contrary to their world view. Lazy team members simply don’t want to be challenged for fear of having to change their plans or do more work. Autocratic leaders view their jobs as having to have all the answers and be in control and establish fictitious paradigms where challenging the status quo is out of the question.
For psychological safety to exist on a leadership team, these destructive constructs must be blown up. Most often this happens when the impacts of fear-based leadership teams come to a head such as with the departure of talented executives, the emergence of serious compliance challenges or when the CEO becomes a focal point for solving trivial issues. Whether it’s when the impacts of fear come to fruition or when a CEO or members of a leadership team recognize that leading by fear is fraught with problems, there are a few important steps that must be taken.
• First, the CEO needs to acknowledge that fear is present on the leadership team and foster dialogue about the actual impacts thus far and the potential impacts that will likely ensue. The CEO’s most important job is to model behaviors that squash fear such as minimizing emotional outbursts, encouraging teammates to challenge him/her, and fostering debate.
• Next, the leadership team needs to discuss the behaviors that each person on the team will need to adopt to begin to create an environment where psychological safety can exist. These behaviors typically include curiosity and receptivity to diverse perspectives, listening to each other with respect, encouraging dissenting viewpoints, and evolving the team’s language (e.g., instead of ‘investigation’ use ‘study’).
• Third, the leadership team needs to spend time and put in the hard work required to build trust among; especially where fractured relationships exist. This work includes getting to know each other at a deeper level so that teammates can begin to be vulnerable and have a bit more patience with each other. The real challenge is to begin to chip away at the assumptions that have been built up based on the behaviors on the behavior’s teammates observe in each other.
This approach to building psychological safety is much easier to describe then it is to implement. Changing engrained ways of operating, evolving language, and modeling new behaviors can be a considerable undertaking that requires each team member to demonstrate vulnerability and dig deep for patience. But the alternative—perpetuating an environment of fear—almost certainly results in an increase in dysfunction at best and severe performance consequences at worst.
[i] Amy C. Edmondson, “The Fearless Organization.” John Wiley & Sons, 2019, p XV.