Published in the San Diego Union-Tribune, November 19, 2018
“Real power is … fear.”
— President Donald Trump
Perhaps, but does fear create an effective environment? No, contends, Amy Edmondson, professor of leadership at Harvard Business School. In her book “The Fearless Organization,” she argues persuasively that when it comes to managing interpersonal relationships in the workplace, fear is not a useful tool.
“Fear of not being included, fear of appearing ignorant, fear of being ignored or ostracized” can destroy teamwork, creativity and innovation. Fear can paralyze your employees, and Edmondson goes on to say that “psychological safety,” or PS, is the antidote to fear.
I get it. I support a safe workplace. I do not allow any kind of shaming or sexual harassment or bullying in my environments. A fearless workplace is one where employees believe that their voice can be heard, their opinions matter and, from time to time, they are actually listened to. Now let’s play a different game. Can fear be valuable and effective in the workplace, and if so, what kind of fear is that?
I think about the phrase “running scared” from the Roy Orbison hit song or the various movies with that title. I would like to make the case that the quality of running scared is important for the entrepreneur. It should be in their DNA. I have to confess that I am a bit out there in this area. If it is going well, I worry and am afraid that it won’t last and that they (whoever they are) will take it away from me and in the alternative, if there is a storm outside and tornadoes are approaching, then I am scared that my little house of cards will get blown into Kansas.
The idea of fear comes in many forms — fear of failure being paramount. So the idea of urgency, the relentless press to keep the demons, known and unknown, from destroying the company is what should lurk just beneath the surface of every CEO. If the CEO is fat and happy, he probably will not be CEO for long. No matter how much cash you have in the bank or customers at the front door, the fear factor never leaves.
At the same time, rational behavior can and should triumph. Finding the proper balance between winding the troops up with the exhortation that the zombies are just over the hill versus dude, let’s go have a pizza and a beer at 2 p.m. on Friday, is the key to surviving the long haul entrepreneurial marathon.
Edmondson argues that creating PS also fosters “employee engagement.” Without it, the fear factor “inhibits learning and cooperation, and it fosters an epidemic of silence.” It reminds me of a famous cartoon strip, “Grin and Bear It,” created by George Lichty in 1932. It skewered the same stuff that makes people crazy today — being powerless and at constant risk.
Edmondson also makes the point that PS helps to remind your employees “why what they do matters.” I think the theme of a safe environment should be equally integrated with an appropriate sense of the urgency that should drive all startups.
One of my companies was about to go broke when at the last minute the infamous Series A finally funded. I can tell you that the fear in the office was palpable, but the most interesting byproduct of that event was the aftermath. The entire company was first relieved and then immediately after, they were on a high, they were jazzed, and they were more motivated than ever.
It seems that when you dodge the infamous bullet, two things happen — you get to stay alive, but even more interesting, you are so grateful, so surprised that you didn’t die in the car crash, that you literally are ecstatic. Your adrenaline runs at the peak. You want to get back to work and go even faster.
And finally, we come back to one of my favorites — the negotiation. How does fear inform a deal? There is the fear of loss, of failure, of overpaying, of giving away the store by mistake, of getting the deal and then regretting it instantly.
Me, I have to confess I love the game. Balancing all those fears keeps me in the gym, practicing all the time, but I have also learned when to turn off the lights and send all my players home.
Senturia, a serial entrepreneur who invests in early-stage technology companies, writes weekly about entrepreneurship in San Diego. [email protected]
Rule No. 585