3 Important Steps to Encourage Leaders to Tackle Fear

By Heather Campbell

If you recognise that fear is undermining performance and productivity in your organisation, you are not alone.

In our recent survey, 49 per cent of respondents said that fear is having a significantly or excessively adverse impact on performance and productivity in their organisations.

Your challenge is how to get other people to buy in to doing something about it. In this blog post, I’m going to outline what you can do to get the right people focussed on reducing fear in your organisation.

1. Determine the adverse effects of fear in your organisation

The first step is to be clear about the impact that fear is having on your organisation, division or team and raise them with the individual(s) who have the power to change things.

Identify a maximum of three significant ways fear is impacting and the scale of this impact (research shows more than three and you risk undermining your case with too much information). Be specific. Think about what matters to the people who can take action.

Here are two examples, prepared for the General Manager in a division of a heavy engineering firm we worked with. The General Manager was seeking to introduce more streamlined ways of working – in effect implementing Lean Manufacturing.

We identified the following critical fears that were getting in the way of people engaging with this Division-wide change:

Example 1: Supervisors and frontline team members don’t have enough information about the budgetary constraints within which they are working. Therefore, they are afraid to make decisions that will require financial investment

Example 2: You (the General Manager) have strongly criticised senior managers during meetings because you weren’t happy with suggestions they made. Therefore, they will not risk putting their heads above the parapet by speaking up or making proposals when you are present

2. Make your case

Too often, when creating a business case, people emphasise the benefits of taking action. However, they are unwittingly undermining their case rather than adding to it.

Robert Cialdini, Regents’ Professor Emeritus of Psychology and Marketing at Arizona State University, and expert in building influence, found that people are more driven by fear of loss than by desire for gain. So ironically, in encouraging others to tackle fear in your organisation, you need to build their fears around not doing so.

This doesn’t mean you completely ignore the benefits of taking action. It does mean, however, that you need to establish the following:

  1. The benefits of taking action to tackle the fears you have identified.
  2. The costs of taking action to tackle the fears you have identified.
  3. The costs of NOT taking action to tackle the fears you have identified.

It is essential that you include all three elements.  Naturally, others will want to be clear about the benefits. However, when it comes to their deciding whether or not to tackle fear in your organisation, that decision will be based on whether it will be more costly to avoid taking action than it will be to take action.

3.  Prepare to stand your ground

In my experience, the first thing that a chief executive or any other leader will do when you point out that fear is present in their organisation, division or team is deny its existence.  Even when there are clear examples of how fear is driving inappropriate or unproductive behaviours, and negatively impacting performance, hearing this is not easy – and especially so if the line manager is in some way driving that fear.

Therefore, be prepared to hear statements such as ‘You’re exaggerating’, ‘I don’t see any evidence of this’, ‘What proof do you have?’

The temptation is to respond emotionally and either argue or back down.  Neither will help you achieve your goals.

Instead, ask questions to understand more about the other person’s perspective.  For example:

  • ‘In what ways does this seem exaggerated?’
  • ‘What do you see happening?’
  • ‘What proof would be useful?’
  • ‘What do you dislike about what I’m saying?’

By asking questions, you open up useful exploration and the opportunity to continue the debate.


If you recognise that fear is costing your organisation, you won’t want to sit back and put up with the status quo. If you can go ahead and take the necessary steps to change things yourself, that’s great. Your investment in doing so will be well worth it in terms of increased performance and productivity across your organisation.

However, if you need others to engage with you in taking this action, the above steps will help you to get this engagement.

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