Getting Past The Fear

Leslie Kossoff Probably one of the most destructive things I ever hear executives say - and I've heard it far too often - is "A little bit of fear is a good thing."


Fear, no matter how much or how little, is not only a bad thing. It is the worst thing that can happen to an individual or an organization.

The logic of those who believe that fear is a good thing is that, ostensibly, it keeps everyone on their toes. If employees - whether in r&d, sales, service, design, manufacturing or elsewhere in the enterprise - are afraid enough they will do a better job for the organization.

If employees are afraid that they may lose their jobs - whether by their own doing or because of possible layoffs, or that the company will disband or be acquired, or that someone else will be promoted . . . or frankly anything else that management can dream up . . . this will supposedly ensure that employees are at the top of their game. They will give the best possible performance. They will drive the company to new heights.

Or so the logic goes. Again, wrong.

Fear not only paralyzes. Fear kills.

Fear kills productivity - because people are distracted. Fear kills innovation - because people can't be creative when they are afraid. Fear kills motivation - because there is less trust in the organization and its executives.

As well, fear kills the executive's ability to succeed. When executives operate to and manage fear into the organization, it is most often because the executives, themselves, are afraid.

They are afraid of how the company is performing. They are afraid of how their performance is perceived. They are afraid of the next appraisal and bonus results. They are afraid of their colleagues . . . and what those colleagues might be doing better or with greater visibility. They are afraid of the analysts. They are afraid of the global economy and outsourcing.

They are simply afraid.

And while executives are better at hiding their fears - from themselves as well as their stakeholders - the fear within has the same impact and effect as it does on the employees who are being managed to it. Fear kills the executive's ability to take the organization to new, only previously dreamed of successes.

But, where do the fears come from?

Interestingly, fear is self generated. It comes from choice - to be afraid or to trust your own knowledge, experience and instincts. The choice you make determines whether you operate to what you and others with whom you collaborate know is right - or what you think is the best thing to do politically.

Because when all is said and done, managed fear is a political strategy. It supposedly makes the manager or executive who presents the benign yet always effective threat think he or she is strong - in both look and action.

In fact, managing to and by fear is a sign of weakness and distrust in yourself as well as in your organization. It is a sign that while you may think you know the right thing to do, you are not willing to take the risk to do what's right for you, the organization, its shareholders and its stakeholders.

Fear is a wonderful means of keeping things the way they are - or taking them back to a time and place where things supposedly made sense.

Look at the results of the dot-com boom and bust.

In the late 1990's there was no end to the money to be made and the innovation and improvement to be created. The Dow was going to go well beyond 30,000 and the Nasdaq had no upper limits. Anyone who wanted to be an entrepreneur or stockholder (for which, read multimillionaire) could do so. Organizations that weren't in the technology space were boring, old, tired - so they had to find a way to get on the bandwagon as well. And they did.

There was no downside. Cycles were a thing of the past. Everything was going up, up, up.

And then, as was readily and consistently predicted, there was the down cycle. Only in this case there was so much more emotion behind the successes that what would be considered a normal next step became much more and much worse.

Executives and organizations became afraid. And not only did they have an economic downturn to fear, suddenly there was so much more about which to be afraid.

There was terrorism. A global economy moving in directions not foreseen. Outsourcing. New competition.

Because the reaction was fear, executives and organizations holed in. They stopped moving forward and began moving backward as far and as fast as they could. They called it "going back to basics."

Yet, of greatest import, is that throughout the boom the so-called "Venture Guys" and "Gray Hairs" (i.e., those who know and understand organizations) knew that what was missing from the mix during the boom was exactly those basics.

Organizations weren't being built. Mostly, it was just a series of new products or services - all technologically based - that were being created. Kind of like an r&d organization gone amuck where the products, while still in prototype, were being spun off into stand-alone enterprises.

We got what we deserved. And while we subsequently did what needed to be done - going back to basics - the problem now is that we are stuck in a do-loop. We are caught in our fears and, as a result, we are not moving ahead the way we must.

So, you ask, what's the answer? It is two-fold.

First, for executives: Identify your fears. Take an objective look at your performance - most particularly the decisions you knew you wanted to make yet chose not to make - and determine where those fears are coming from.

What is making you afraid? Are your concerns real or are they expanded and exacerbated versions of simple organizational challenges? What is the worst case scenario? What would you do differently if you weren't operating to those fears?

And once you have your answers, move forward. Trust yourself - your knowledge, skill, experience and instinct - to make the right moves for yourself and for those who depend upon you. Be the executive you know you are and can be.

Next, for the organization: Communicate. Talk with employees about what is going on in the marketplace, the competitive landscape, the financials of the company, the strategy you and the organization are pursuing. Make sure everyone knows where the company is going and becomes an integral part of how the enterprise will get there - and beyond.

Ask them about their fears. Find out what is keeping them from bringing new ideas to the fore - or what happens to ideas when they are presented and then die that predictable death. Look at the systems by which the employees operate. Simplify, clarify and streamline them for everyone's ease of use and guaranteed improvement.

Dr. W. Edwards Deming - the gentleman credited with assisting the Japanese to turn around their economy after World War II and who did the same for the West in the 1970s and 80s - told management they must "Drive out fear." He was right.

The only way that we can make our organizations - and our world - what we want and believe it can be is to operate from a place of trust and knowing. We know what to do to create the greater good. The only thing, now, is to do it.

For information about Ms. Kossoff's executive and corporate advisory services or for speaking engagements, please visit her at or contact her at

Copyright © 2004 by Leslie L. Kossoff

Print page