The Fence of Fear

donkeyFear has played an interesting role in my life. Or better said, confronting my fears has given me the opportunity to do things I would have never done before. For example I was afraid to go to Brazil as a 16 year old exchange student for a year, but it was a life changing experience – for the better. I have been afraid to be “unknowing” and vulnerable when facilitating groups, but those have often been pivotal moments. (By the way, the picture is of me there, many many moons ago!)

But fear within groups and between members has never shown up  generatively. It seems to create tight fences between individuals in the group. Then I read Shawn Callahan (of Anecdote) recent post  about An indicator of group fear in organisations and a wee insight arrived.

First of all, click away and read the post AND take the time to view the video. Do the little exercise. It is worth the 30 seconds of cogitation.

Shawn’s conclusion is that fear is killing creativity. He writes:

Ed Catmull, the CEO and co-founder of Pixar made this point clear in his recent book, Creativity Inc., that this biggest killer of creativity is fear.

I’d say that fear blocks more than creativity. It blocks aspects of collaboration, cooperation, knowledge sharing, learning and even the simple pleasures we CAN have working with each other.

I’ve worked with a number of organizations where fear is palpable. Sometimes it is in the more day to day relationships between team members. Sometimes it is hierarchical, but not always. It isn’t always “the boss” we fear. It may be someone on the team who is bullying or harassing (consciously or unconsciously – most the latter in my observation.) Sometimes it is the very culture of the organization, often from the top, that permeates everywhere.

Slight side note: I want to make a clear distinction that I do not equate fear directly with dissent, diversity or critical thinking. They may show up together. But the absence of fear is not necessarily bland indifference, ok?  In fact, when fear is not present, I think we can better use our disagreements and diversity. So I don’t want to fall into the false trap of surface “niceness.” That kind of niceness can be a response to fear to cover it up and that doesn’t work well either! I’ll also state for the record that being “nice” as in using compassion and respect is something I’m all for. The word “nice” is a tricky one.

What really interests me are the people who seem to be resilient to fear. They don’t let fear of being dismissed, or not “liked” keep them from their own personal brand of excellence.

I find it hard to combat top down fear, so maybe I should pay more attention to those “positive deviants” who seem resilient. Have any clues on why they are that way? How we can nurture more of the resilience?



9 thoughts on “The Fence of Fear”

  1. It’s so true what you are saying about niceties. I was chatting to Mark (my business partner) yesterday and we were noticing just how hard it is for leaders to get feedback. We both reflected on times as younger employees in large organisations and leaders have asked what we thought of their presentation and we said it was good when in fact we were bored off our heads. That’s fear at work and as you say, learning suffers.

  2. This is really well timed. I’d say down with nice always. It gets us nowhere anyway. Having just spent 3 days agonizing over a recent letter from my oncologist announcing her withdrawal from being my chief chemo wizard on the grounds that there seems to be a lack of “trust” between us, I gave up on nice and told her to cut the drama. She never answered my calls when I was in serious distress and then scolded me for emailing her to get the conversation started again. The fact is I talk back to crappy service and nicety-nice “trust” talk is for public relations and not for people who have pissed each other off. Personally, I believe she could learn some things about working with a bit less “trust” and a lot more vulnerability but maybe it’s too early in her career to hear these things? For now she can blow-it.

    Cancer conversations are always a dance of unnecessary carefulness as if telling someone who’s dealing with mortality that their fly was down is going to push them over the edge:-)

    I vote for the big triangle. Nobody likes him and even if was cool his proclivity to bossiness needs to be corrected by a big fall and a chance for redemption. People who screw themselves up are way more interesting than the small, cute and “innocent.”

    1. Hi Scott

      First, sending lots of healing beams for the cancer. I get the sense you are speaking from the kind of truth and fear most of us don’t encounter regularly, so I appreciate your comments. It is interesting that a friend faced a very similar communication breakdown with an oncologist this summer and also switched, which triggers my observation that __compassionate__ communication, not “nice” communication is exceedingly useful and perhaps too rare. I hesitate to weigh in on the “trust” talk as falling into the nice-nice trap because of the importance of trust, so I’m just going to cogitate on that for a while. I am jet lagged… so my thinking power is weak.

      So I hear one vote (and a story) for the triangle. Shawn, are you tracking this?

  3. Hi Nancy,

    Thanks for the healing beams. Think I’ll save them for another adventure into the fear zone. Fear has pushed me out for the moment anyway. My problem with fear is it seems to trigger anger which has become a much discredited resource for healing. Sadly as anger as catharsis has become an object of correction stripped of any discovery potential while earning the keep-it-to-yourself-award for the most ineffectual advice of the decade.

    Trust in some ways is coupled with fear for me. They are both states of risk: fear as the loss of control in its purest form; trust as a relaxation of control with high fines for breakage but so rewarding when a person can get past the self betrayed to some state that’s hard to explain, and definitely difficult to remain in.

    There’s a price for all this learning I’m receiving and think my oncologist caught some of the overload. Not to give myself magical powers but wonder if I unconsciously radiate a kind of craziness from being poorly done by and taking it in as an energy source or a door opening on something that NEEDS to be observed?

    Sorry to hear your friend had a communication breakdown but understand that medical people carry a load that probably breaks the good ones first. The urge to run from us sickies is hardwired into our survival responses. Imagine being tied voluntarily to something your brain is screaming to run away from day-after-day. Past my irritation and anger I think my oncologist is wise to cut the ties. She’s young and has a lot of pain to endure and regardless of her “duty” to serve me she needs to stand away from edge sometimes. The alternative is to develop a thick skin or become like 5 doctors and one surgeon who never gave up on their miss-diagnosis of gall stones until I had to be taken away from theorizing to have my artificial heart valve returned from where it had drifted to shred the top of my heart. They talked about trust too.

    As for inducing fear, the president of the college where my wife works is a master at it. Today’s trick was to be interviewed on the local radio morning show on the future of the college. By picking a Friday, and before he has a “heart-to-heart” with the staff, he announced cuts are coming and it’s unclear who will need to be cut. This is very consistent with past behaviours and is partly why the college is failing.

    Was that donkey carnivorous?

  4. Early early morning (jet lag, chest cold) has me up at 3:45 am which is an oddly good time for jumping into tough, complex subjects, Scott. While O wait for the kettle to boil, I am reflecting on fear that showed up a couple of times over the last two weeks where I’ve been in Zimbabwe and Italy facilitating two very different meetings.

    The fear I experienced and observed was at a far smaller level than the life and death of health (and I was nodding in strong agreement about what care givers have to do and how they do it with fear and the edge of mortality). But I sense them as consistent to your observations. In the last few years I have been working intentionally to avoid the “thick skin” approach to fear as a facilitator, and try hard to see fear, dissent, and even “shut down” as an invitation to go further. Sometimes it is wonderful. Sometimes I fail.

    The first week there was one very operational fear that was blocking progress for some of the subgroups in the meeting – the fear of losing one’s domination and/or control of a piece of work yet strongly resisting stating that fear. The fear of ramifications of addressing senior leaders’ challenges and even failures head on before they create more failure. This is one of the most common blockers I see in groups. “Let me obfuscate around that issue.” Let’s deny my resistance and blame it on something else. Let’s avoid making the decision we really need to start with. I pushed pretty hard on it, and spoke out a few times in ways that was clearly not the “impartial facilitator” style. I created stress for my client, but I could not ignore what I saw. So we pushed a bit through the fear. Enough? Too soon to tell.

    At the end of the week we had a two day safari. There I saw very different manifestations of fear when we were in the bush, yards away from a pair of huge, male lions. Or when a herd of elephants gave us strong signals to GO AWAY!

    Wait, let me correct that. I saw very interesting manifestations of fearlessness and fear. I had this thought that IF we had been on safari first, I might have been able to use these particular types of fear and fearlessness in the meeting. I’m going to tuck that thought away for the future.

    But one thing stood out. After the fear passed, this almost hysterical laughter burst forth. We need relief from fear so we can use fear? Was that a lesson that was showing up? How might I design ways to offer release, so the next time fear shows up, we know we can work with it rather than deny it?

    (See, it is probably really silly to write when half asleep at now 4am. )

    The second meeting there was so much self protection that few ever even got close to fear. (I might also note that these were higher level people from different orgs and not a collection of teams from one!) And a lot less happened for most participants. A few, who stuck their necks out, probably had a very different experience. One, on the last day, basically called the entire group out for its own self denial. He was trying to use provocation to break through. I’m not sure how others received the provocation.I hope they did not simply dismiss him.

    If I were do have “do overs” I’d consider how we could have used fear in the first meeting more generatively, and I would have worked hard to create some risk FOR fear in the second.

    But maybe I was the doctor who was too scared to face fear…. or perhaps I did not fully go into my fear. Or be fearless enough to use it.

    I do hope I was not like the college president.

  5. Nancy,
    not sure about levels of fear being different between the feeding a donkey who might bite your fingers off, the enduring insecurity of losing a job and dying. Have to think about each of these separately and maybe later in more detail.
    My first sense is that fear of a present threat like angry elephants is too raw to work with in the moment and the release from it is where we can observe it. In that release, if someone / something helps us out of the fear we can build trust—not a dependency on a savior but a recognition placed on a person of authenticity, an object (a charm, fetish, symbol) or our own strength to deliver relief. Sorry, I’m not super clear on this.
    If fear is perceived as being “out there” but unpredictable, it can form a wearying attentiveness in us. Though until it focuses to actually being there it’s an abstraction without a face. I think that abstraction is the key to institutional fear. Both my wife and I worked at the Canadian version of the most dysfunctional College on record for years (my wife still works there) (and of course it’s in Alberta). To protect themselves from job loss people created policies and even made up a union but management always had a counter policy. The trick was to bully the general members of staff but ALWAYS dismiss people at the individual level. Rewards and punishments were unpredictable, impossible to know for sure and this created an extra bubble of uncertainty.
    Will have to write more later. Think I need to be more concrete in my examples. Take care of your cold!

    1. I’m still pondering this. It is interesting because in a few of my networks there are these emerging conversations about what we’ve learnt from failures, from finding our assumptions are all wrong, or from an attack from someone. Maybe it is winter solstice reflections, but I’m noticing this thread.

      I’m not clear on the link between fear and trust either, and I don’t think it is a simple one, but I can’t seem to put my finger on it either.
      Also pondering fear/abstraction and institutions…

  6. Maybe not a good time to be discussing this topic but think I’ve puzzled out the issue with the oncologist. Talking with a different oncologist she as much as stated straight out that I had no business worrying over my care as the people treating me were all professionals. That sounds to me like a control thing and I sense there’s a desire not to hurt but to expose pig-headed-me to the reality of dependency in chronic diseases in order to make me admit I need help.
    Along with outer patients I’ve met, at some point the shocks don’t shock any more. Revelations that I may be needy at times and MUST TRUST in order for the medical people to succeed in “saving” me leave out the part where I was present through the whole disaster and may have resources of my own–I need those resources. As possibly the final option I’ll have they may not be taken from me. I will not be separated from those last few things that are mine.
    Maybe trust is allowing someone to be as strong as they can be–even if it’s messy. From outside a failure may make us cringe while inside it’s an attempt and a gesture of bravery.

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