Driving Fear out of the Workplace

Subtitle: Creating the High-Trust, High-Performance Organization
By Kathleen D. Ryan & Daniel K. Oestreich

“The fundamental problem in American business is that people are scared to discuss the problems of people” (Gitlow & Gitlow, 1987, p.137)

 Our tendency to avoid failure opposes, dampens, and inhibits our ability to undertake achievement-oriented activities. Fear-based outcomes, in most cases, affect both personal and organizational effectiveness and performance. Fear doesn’t motivate toward constructive action. On the contrary, it nourishes competition within an organization, fosters short-term thinking, destroys trust, erodes joy and pride in work, stifles innovation, and distorts communication. (J. Gerald Suarez, introduction p. xii, of Driving Fear out of the Workplace)

 “No passion so effectively robs the mind of all its powers of acting and reasoning as fear.” (Edmond Burke)

 Xv: It [fear] is most easily observed as a reluctance to speak up about needed improvements or other important work issues because of fear of repercussions. To move forward into a new century, organizations must break through this barrier to create environments where trust, productivity, and innovation can flourish.

 xvi: Deming asserted in his fourteen obligations of management that quality was impossible where people are afraid to tell the truth. Scrap and breakage get hidden, numbers and schedules are misrepresented, and bad products are forwarded to customers because the quality assurance inspector knows better than to stop the line. Deming strongly
admonished managers to drive out fear so that everyone can participate meaningfully in the organization.

 xviii [definition]: Fear is feeling threatened by possible repercussions as a result of speaking up about work-related concerns, ideas, and suggestions for improvement.

xiii: [beliefs]

  1. Influencing relationships with direct reports is often easier and faster than with superiors.
  2. One of the best methods of influencing higher levels of the system is by creating success stories in other parts of the
  3. Leaders have a responsibility to initiate efforts to reduce fear and build trust, whatever their position.

 p.3: common workplace fears

·        having one’s credibility questioned

·        being left out of decision making

·        being criticized in front of others not getting information necessary to succeed

·        having a key assignment given to someone else

·        having disagreements that might lead to damaged relationships

·       getting stuck in a dead end job

·       not getting deserved recognition

·       not being seen as a team player

·       having suggestions ignored or misinterpreted as criticisms

·       receiving poor performance ratings

·       getting fired.

p.18: the most basic negative assumption that lies at the root of problems described in this book is the assumption that supervisors and employees cannot trust one another. As a result:

  • Each side assumes that the other operates from a philosophy of self-interest.
  • Each side is expected to try to achieve its self interest at the expense of the other.

p.20. [fear is like a flu]. The experience is similar to having a case of the flu but going to work anyway. The participants feel sick, yet they continue with the normal routine because they do not yet feel bad enough to do what is necessary to get better. As with coming to work sick, the illness only worsens with time. These relationships are susceptible, just
waiting for a new policy, organizational change, or other initiative to create a new outbreak of fear.

p.36: A trust-based workplace may be defined as one in which core behaviors are displayed frequently, whether or not power differences exist between individuals.

 p.37-39: Day-to-day action of trust-based environments:

  • They give credit for good work that is being done, instead of blaming each other.
  • They take responsibility rather than making excuses.
    They believe that if people do not make mistakes, they never will improve. They support each other when mistakes are made and help each other to figure out how to do things differently in the future.
  • They openly share information.
  • They collaborate on important issues
  • They speak in terms of “we” rather than creating “us and them”
  • They focus on the common purpose and do not get sidetracked by differences in the details.
  • They respect organizational structures and roles and no not use them in undermining ways.
  • They value each oterh’s background and experience and do not discredit each other’s competence.
  • They openly voice concerns, criticisms, and conflicts
  • They speak positively about their work, their organization, and the future

p.40: The problem is the power difference.
Mistrust emerges at the point where supervisors and employees connect their differences in organizational authority with their potential to negatively affect one another’s lives. This negative, power-oriented focus often causes both
managers and employees to feel threatened.

p.43: The key is changing assumptions
All too often, individuals make positive assumptions about themselves but negative ones about the others, whoever they are. This “good guys and bad guys” perspective is read by the other side as an unspoken but real set of negative assumptions that must be defended against. Each group believes that the other wants radically different things. Yet time after time in conflict management and team-building work, the answer comes back that people generally want the same things: respect, participation, a voice, clarity, fairness, understanding, common goals, a meaningful job, and the opportunity to achieve something worthwhile. [cf.: Abilene Paradox]

p.44-47: Reasons for building a high-trust workplace.
Business reasons:

  • People will not share information or their ideas if they
    do not feel safe to do so, regardless of how much the company needs their best
    work in order to survive.

The human reasons:

  • Fear makes people smaller – and less capable – then they really are.
  • In the long run, things get done well because of the quality of the relationships between people, not because job descriptions are well thought out and explicit. It’s not that organizations should forgo formal human resource systems. … It is just that they can never be a substitute for energizing, trust-based relationships at the heart of an
    organization that is meeting the challenge of the new era.

p.51: Threat comes in five ways

  1. Actual experience in the present or in a past situation – what has happened directo to the person and what has been directly observed.
  2. Stories about others’ experiences, especially those who are liked or trusted.
  3. Negative assumptions about others’ behavior and intentions based on private interpretations about what has happened.
  4. Negative, culturally based stereotypes about those with different levels of organizational power.
  5. Externally imposed change


When people are afraid, there is nearly always more than one side to each story.

The dynamics of fear often seem to have a life of their own

Resolution comes from learning about others’ perspectives, not finding “the truth” [cf.: difficult conversations]

p.57: Triggers of Mistrust

  1. Abrasive and abusive conduct by managers and supervisors
  2. ambiguous behaviors by managers and supervisors
  3. perceptions about the culture of the organization – “how
    we do things here” – with special emphasis on how human resources (HR) systems
    operate and on the conduct of top management


Primary Goals sits at the intersection of three core ideas about communication:
  • Leaders create vision by communicating a compelling future to their teams.
  • Teams create success based on how effectively the communicate and coordinate with each other.
  • Entrepreneurial ventures are successful only when they communicate value to people with a concern that the business can take care of
In all cases, it’s about Conversations for Committed Results.  That’s our Primary Goal.  



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