Overcoming Fear Brings About Greater Accountability on the Job

Don Tennant
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Eight Tips for Building a Better Leadership System

What’s the one symptom that is most likely to hamper productivity and the effective functioning of the organization? There’s a strong argument to be made that that symptom is fear. The reason is simple: Fear can make people shut down. And when employees shut down, they’re more of a drain than they are an asset.

I recently had a fascinating discussion about fear in the workplace with Dr. Laurie Cure, president and CEO of Innovative Connections, a consulting company in Windsor, Colo., that specializes in organizational effectiveness. Her most recent book, “Leading Without Fear: The Fine Line Between Fear and Accountability,” sheds some light on a topic that warrants discussion.

I asked Cure what that fine line between fear and accountability is all about. She explained that there’s too often an element of threat in driving accountability:


Workplaces are always trying to achieve accountability. We want our employees to be accountable, we want our leaders to be accountable, and if we can get this level of accountability, we can actually move things forward. The problem we have is that oftentimes, in the process of trying to drive accountability, we introduce fear—we introduce that level of threat. So there’s a fine line between this need to communicate and create a sense of urgency around organizational realities. Organizations are in tough positions—they’re in competitive positions, they’re in positions of extreme change. And it can be tempting to want to introduce that from a perspective of threat, which then brings up the level of fear. The problem with that is that if we elevate the level of fear, we collapse people. People can’t function—they are paralyzed. So that’s where the fine line comes in: How do we create accountability, and create a sense of urgency to the point where we can get people creative and moving, without crossing the line into a place of fear where they shut down and become paralyzed?

I mentioned to Cure that her book reminded me of a book by a business coach named Mike Staver, titled “Leadership Isn’t for Cowards.” As I noted in a previous post, Staver contends that leaders may well be cowards without even realizing it, because they lead from a place of fear. I asked Cure for her thoughts on that, and she spoke of the importance of summoning the courage to manage our own perceptions:

I’ve been doing some focus groups and some individual interviews around, ‘What is the opposite of fear?’ So when you say ‘coward,’ [I’m reminded that] a lot of people say ‘courage’ is the opposite of fear. That’s not the word that always comes up, but it comes up frequently enough that it’s worth mentioning. Fear is really driven by the perception of threat. I love that word ‘perception,’ because we can perceive something, whether it’s real or not. If we have the perception of something, we can experience fear based on that. When you think about the courage piece, part of being courageous is managing our own perceptions of what is and isn’t real in the world that we live in.

I noted that I had recently come across a survey that found that although opportunities for women are opening up in the C-suite, millennial women tend not to want those positions because they’re unwilling to make the sacrifices that getting those positions entails. I asked Cure if that surprised her, and to what extent she thought fear lies at the heart of any such unwillingness. Her response:

If we think about that in relation to fear, we need to recognize that fear is a result of the core values we hold, and what motivates us. So any emotion is really guided by who we are at the core. What we find is that millennials have a much different core, in terms of their value set, compared to previous generations. So [rather than it being a matter of fear], it’s around what they’re willing and not willing to do as they step into the workplace. They are not willing to sacrifice.

Given that so much has been written and discussed about promoting diversity in the workplace, I asked Cure how important gender and racial balance is in the workplace, and to what extent fear is an obstacle to attaining it. She said the question brought to mind the relationship between fear and trust:

We talk about how courage may be the opposite of fear; trust can also sometimes serve as an opposite of fear. And when we think about trust, particularly in terms of how it shows up in the workplace, one of the drivers of trust is similarities. So while we want to promote diversity, since it’s so important from the perspective of thought and ideas and balance, the notion of similarities is also important when you think about trust. So we need to find similarities in diverse environments by creating these similarities in terms of, for example, what the organization stands for, and what the vision is for the organization. We need to rally people around those similarities.

I mentioned to Cure that as co-writer of the book, “Spy the Lie: CIA Officers Teach You How to Detect Deception,” I’d found that there’s a lot of interest in the reasons people lie, and the impact of lying in the workplace. I asked her if she saw any connection between untruthfulness and fear in the workplace, and she said people will lie because of their own fear:

They’re not in a place of safety to be able to create that transparent dialogue. So in the workplace, how do we as leaders create transparent communication? … The language of fear can be a really important aspect of organizations and leaders managing fear. Things like not responding to emails and not giving feedback are behaviors of leaders that induce fear in others. We as leaders have to start shifting how we [relate] with our employees if we want to mitigate fear in the organization.

In the course of preparing for my interview with Cure, I went to her Twitter feed, and a recent tweet caught my attention: “I continue to be fascinated by human behavior.” I told her that in our book, we quoted a CIA psychologist who said, “There is only a casual relationship between logic and human behavior,” the idea being that you can’t assume that people will react to a given situation the way you think they naturally would. I asked Cure for her thoughts on that, and she said it was a “beautiful” point:

If we think about emotion from a theoretical perspective, there are ingredients that create an emotion. We like to think of logic and feeling as two ends of a continuum. In reality, our thoughts really drive our emotions, and emotions drive thought, and it continues in this cycle. So when we look at human behavior, if we can break down the ingredients of emotion, we can begin to understand why the exact same event can cause very different emotional experiences in different people. One of those ingredients is, what goals do people have, and what are their needs? The other piece is about how we’re appraising an event—that has to do with our perception, and what kind of story we’re telling ourselves around an event. Those two pieces can come together and create a very different emotional experience for different people when they’re presented with the same event.

Finally, I asked Cure what her biggest fear is in her capacity as president and CEO of Innovative Connections, and how she deals with it. She said she works really hard to follow her own advice:

My biggest fear that I continue to be confronted with is this whole notion of living on the edge. If we think about how we grow and develop, we need to stretch ourselves, and be on an edge, where we’re pushing ourselves beyond our comfort zone and our boundaries, but not pushing ourselves too far beyond our capacities where we go into that place of deep fear. My challenge as president of my own company is to continue to walk that line without stepping over it so that I paralyze myself.



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