The Corner Office

What are you afraid of? Resisting the culture and confines of fear


FOMO, or the fear of missing out, is a powerful thing. It’s so powerful, in fact, that learning to utilize it is the cornerstone of every Sales 101 course. And it works for one very simple reason — fear is an extremely potent motivator.

As human beings, fear is a fact of existence and has been since before our ancestors were even walking upright. In a more primitive setting, fear of the saber-tooth tiger can keep you from being eaten, and fear of poison keeps you from eating something you shouldn’t. In other words, being afraid keeps you safe and protected.

But fear is an inherently defensive feeling. It can lead to hunkering down and weathering the storm, but staying safe and growing are two very different things. In business, these two actions may sometimes be mutually exclusive.

Fear may have worked as a motivator to keep our ancestors out of the jaws of predators, but it’s not half as effective in the workplace. Intense fears at work come in many forms, whether that’s fear of the boss, fear of doing the wrong thing or fear of taking a risk.

This doesn’t just apply to people on the bottom rung of the organizational ladder, either. Whether you’re in middle management, the CEO, or a solopreneur, fear can limit your options and send you down specific, unpleasant paths. 

I know, because I’ve seen it.

Early in my career, I ended up in a culture dominated by someone dead-set on instilling fear. When someone stepped even a toe out of line, the response was always that person’s yelling, censure and general unpleasantness.

And for a while, I could hunker down and handle it. My work got done, and I got through the day by mentally calculating how to follow the rulebook and avoid bringing any penalties on myself by doing something new.

My motivations were entirely rooted in fear, precluding me from finding new ways to grow my role or help the company. It was extremely unhealthy and unproductive.

I handled the situation all right — after all, getting through the day isn’t hard when you know what buttons not to press. But I wouldn’t say I liked coming to work, and I, like many of my talented coworkers, quickly found a way to leave on my own terms. The rest of the staff decided to hunker down.

That organization collapsed shortly after many of us left, and I firmly believe that the leadership's culture of fear had everything to do with that. The leader everyone feared was himself so afraid of mistakes that he made it impossible for any growth within the organization. And this led to its inevitable end — a stagnate, failing business.

As you look at your motivators, ask yourself this question: Am I playing to win or not to lose? My fear-driven boss was playing not to lose, so the business never had any wins to keep it going.

As you examine your motivators, try to identify sources of fear. Maybe you fear conflict at work, being fired, or even that your spouse isn't happy with your hours or how much money you’re bringing home.

Don’t just stop at your own motivation, though. What about your company as a whole? Does the sales team fear being yelled at? Or do they feel supported to try new things and stretch their talents to get the best results?

What about your directors? Are they motivated to color in the lines so they don’t get in trouble with the board, or are they empowered to take risks and try to create new growth for the organization?

After I left that culture of fear, I found a new culture of empowerment. Eventually, I learned that making a mistake didn't have to be like stepping on a landmine. Instead of resulting in carnage, mistakes could be resolved with honest discussions about how to make better decisions in the future.

I started to flourish in that role. I was happy to be in the organization and brought in better results because I wasn’t trying to keep my head down to avoid the saber-tooth. And in my career today, I work hard to enable others to take those same risks in their work.

If you’re experiencing a great deal of fear in your workplace, it may be time to make some significant changes. As I said, fear will always be a part of being human. But it shouldn’t be the primary motivator for yourself or your organization. Because if fear and threats are the only management tools being used, the only possible outcome is collapse.

Doug Phares is the former CEO of the Sandusky News Group. He currently serves as managing director of Silverwind Enterprises, which owns and provides management services to small businesses. He can be reached at


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