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Is Fear Driving Your Organization?

Cindy Benning is passionate about elevating the quality of leadership in our world. She founded Dragonfly Insights, a company dedicated to empowering leaders through coaching and teaching five BRAVE® virtues designed to propel organizations into excellence.

 
Executive Contributor Cindy Benning

Our immediate reaction is to answer “no” to this provocative question. No one wants to acknowledge that their leaders are influenced by fear or use fear as a motivator. Yet, the truth is that fear drives almost everyone to some extent. However, it's not a fear that's easily seen or recognized. It's a more profound, invisible force, often unnoticed because it operates as a subconscious defence of our ego, the very ego we're reluctant to discuss. It looms like the proverbial elephant in the room.


Woman covering eyes with her hands

Fear emerges when we encounter something beyond our control. The invisible fear that permeates many of us arises when we perceive a threat to our ego. Our ego is essentially how we see ourselves or believe others view us. It's an image shaped by our life's thoughts and experiences, influenced by everything we see, hear, taste, touch, and smell, along with the emotions these experiences evoke. 


Now imagine that subconsciously, you’ve created this image of who you are, how intelligent you are, how attractive you are, how you are supposed to behave, and your sense of right and wrong. Then suddenly, something happens, something is said or done that contradicts this self-image. This is when your ego feels threatened.


Here are some examples of when fear may occur


  • You feel threatened because you believe there's something at risk or something to lose in a given situation, even if its impact on you is minimal.

  • You are not fully aware of your capabilities, strengths, and resilience. This lack of awareness might manifest as low self-confidence, self-esteem, or a feeling of inadequacy. Interestingly, someone might project overconfidence just to mask their insecurities.

  • You might be constrained by limiting beliefs and generalizations about yourself, others, and the world.

  • You are facing unknowns and uncertainties that can push you out of your comfort zone, leaving you feeling unbalanced and without understanding why. You may cling to old certainties like "we've always done it this way."

  • You may be exposed to environments at home or work where fear is leveraged as a management tool, and innovation or dissent is punished. In these environments, negativity can thrive.

Such dynamics can foster a culture of fear within organizations. Humans instinctively respond to threats with fight, flight or freeze reactions—responses deeply embedded in our limbic system, activated not just by physical dangers but also by threats to our ego or beliefs. This can manifest in various ways within organizations, such as apathy, stifled creativity, low energy, defensiveness, high turnover, and, in extreme cases, written or verbal attacks.


How do we address a culture dominated by fear, especially when the underlying cause of all fear is the ego? What if I suggested that many things your ego convinces you to believe might not be accurate or even relevant to your current needs? Consider the possibility that many of the threats you've perceived and reacted to aren't genuine or valid threats at all but merely your way of defending something that no longer requires protection.


Victor Frankl quote

Acknowledging your response requires bravery. True courage involves recognizing a situation or a frightening experience and taking action despite feeling fear. It means feeling the urge to retreat and hide yet choosing to endure difficult and painful times. Courage is not an innate trait or characteristic but a conscious decision; it's about feeling fear, pain, or danger yet choosing to push forward regardless. We suggest a three-tiered approach for you to practice as you courageously manage your fears.


  1.  Person: Reinforce your “self” by becoming aware of when your ego is reacting versus your inner self. When you have an emotional response, take the time to stop and listen to the voice that tells you there is a threat. Is the threat real or from an “old scar”? 

  2. Inter-relation: Look at others as being the best version of themselves. Believe that each person is doing the best they can. Wish, support, and encourage this to be true.

  3. System, environment: Develop a company with a higher purpose. Develop dignity in your organization. Put in place systems that encourage autonomy and responsibility in employees. Allow free speech, even encouraging people to speak about their feelings and fears. Develop a strong sense of belonging, one where it is clear that you truly care about the people.


With time, you can learn to control your ego-driven reactions and achieve fearlessness. Imagine a leader who is undeterred by fear, whose confidence stems from profound self-awareness, making them impervious to external influences. These leaders recognize that emotions associated with reactive behaviours are often based on ego-driven beliefs, and they can easily let go of these emotions. They use virtues aligned with their core selves to inform their responses and direct their actions.

 

Leaders and organizations can begin by recognizing and understanding their fears and then learn to overcome them. This foundational work enables them to approach both the expected and unexpected future challenges with assurance.


Read more from Cindy Benning

 

Cindy Benning, Leadership Development Consultant

Cindy Benning has a unique ability to turn chaos into calm. Her extensive career, characterized by continuous education, leadership, and coaching, has equipped her with robust strategies to navigate myriad challenges professionally and personally. Her 2022 publication, "Being BRAVE®, A Journey of Self-Discovery into Leadership," tells the story of how she came to develop insights into managing the stories we tell ourselves to reveal our true selves. Only then can we learn to lead and live with joy and authenticity.

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