Trust and Fear

December 5, 2015

Fear and trust are normally incompatible. If you were a bank teller and a robber was pointing a revolver at your head, you would find it impossible to trust him.

Likewise in any endeavor of life, from chores at home to important meetings at work, when we are experiencing fear, it is difficult or impossible to trust.

You can find exceptions to this rule, but they are rare. The reason is that to trust someone or something, it means we are willing to be vulnerable. There is a risk that the other person will let us down in some way. Get rid of the fear, and we are freed up to trust once again.

Flying in an airplane is a good example to analyze because we all know that occasionally planes do crash, so there is always some element of risk.

Some people are afraid of heights or of high speed, so they may be afraid to fly because of those feelings. People get on planes when there is fear present because they recognize that statistically they are safer in an airplane at 30,000 feet than at ground level driving their automobile.

The rationale is that if you are afraid to fly you should be much more afraid to drive a car. Statistics show that you are over 100 times more likely to be killed in an automobile than on a plane, per 100 thousand miles traveled.

There is a difference between hope and trust. We hope the plane won’t crash, which means we have an expectation of a positive outcome even though there is anxiety, but if we did not trust the entire system, there would be no way most of us would even get on a plane.

At work, many people experience fear on a regular basis because the workplace is often a place of high stress where specific situations cause people to be less than kind to each other.

A major fear at work is often expressed as an unwillingness to speak out about our feelings because they may come back to haunt us later.

We picture our supervisor as a person who may talk about sharing and being transparent, but we observe that he has a club behind his back that he uses to clobber anyone who expresses a contrary opinion. The boss advocates openness, but models a punishment mentality that perpetuates fear in people.

To experience the benefits of more trust in our lives, we need to examine what is causing our fears and work to eliminate or mitigate them. Only then are we free to take the risk that is implied in any trusting situation.

Often our fears are irrational, so we need to deal with our feelings logically to clarify the true risks from the fictional goblins that haunt the corners of our minds.

Conversely, fear at work is often a very rational emotion based on experience and the observed behaviors of the managers. That kind of toxic environment eliminates the possibility of growing real trust.

You are faced with a choice to endure the hypocrisy or attempt to flee to greener pastures. Those people who continually seek a better environment may find themselves moving to a different job only to find the conditions there are even worse than what they left.

On my website I have several quotations that come from my writings. One of my favorites is “The absence of fear is the incubator of trust.” I believe trust can kindle spontaneously in an environment where fear is low.

Exercise for you: As you go through your day today, experience your level of trust moment by moment as much as you can. Keep track of your feelings carefully.

If you find a pocket of fear, it will likely block your ability to trust. Root out the cause of that fear and see how easy it becomes to trust once again.

Make sure to verify the body language of people because fearful people generally do not advertise that condition consciously.

We can all improve the level of trust in our lives by managing our fears. Of course, eliminating fear is often easier said than done.

If you are afraid of heights, I cannot talk you out of getting clammy on top of the Empire State Building, so managing our fears down is not always possible, but many of our fears at work can be reduced if we work at it.

In an organization, people are often paralyzed with fear because of the power of their boss to impact their standard of living with a simple decision. Here are a few methods that may work to reduce fear depending on the specific situation:

Look at the situation logically – this is the case with getting on an airplane. Sure it may be a bit scary, but we need to understand when the true level of risk is very low. If there is true hypocrisy, then we need to recognize it and protect our own interests.

Verbalize your fear – by going public with what is causing your angst, you solicit the help of others to identify ways to cope with the fear. In some cases a frank dialog with a superior may help clear the air and allow you to be more candid in the future. In other cases, the admission of fear will be rejected by the boss as unnecessary. That is because the supervisor is mostly blind to the problem he is causing.

Accept it but move on – simply resolve to take the necessary risk even though there is fear. Trust in others usually begets more trust to us in return. In this case you take baby steps to test the level of trust as you try to build up more of it.

Triumph over the fear – refuse to give in to the tendency to think negative thoughts. Simply rise above the fear and let the adrenalin rush give you the needed courage. Replace fear with faith.

Obviously, you need to assess the potential that your triumph over fear could lead to unemployment or worse. That is where judgment and maturity are required.

If your organization runs on a steady diet of fear because people are afraid of the consequences of speaking their truth, you are likely to have a toxic, low trust culture.

That is a signal that there is an amazing level of productivity increase available if the leaders can change their behaviors to reduce the fear.

I recall # 8 of Deming’s famous 14 points was “drive out fear.” I believe the famous quality guru was right.

The preceding was derived from an episode in “Building Trust,” a 30 part video series by Bob Whipple “The Trust Ambassador.” To view three short (3 minutes each) examples at no cost go to

Toxic Leaders

September 23, 2012

We are all familiar with the word “toxic” and recognize that toxic substances are known to cause human beings serious injury or death. We are also aware that some individuals have mastered the skill of being toxic to other people. When a toxic person is the leader of an organization, the performance of that unit will typically be less than half what it would be under a leader who builds trust. There is documented evidence (see Trust Across America statistics) that high trust groups outperform low trust groups by a factor of two to five times.

Thankfully, the majority of leaders are not toxic. One estimate given by LTG Walter F. Ulmer in an article entitled “Toxic Leadership” (Army, June 2012) is that 30-50% of leaders are essentially transformational, while only 8-10% are essentially toxic. The unfortunate reality is that one toxic leader in an organization does such incredible damage, he or she can bring down an entire culture without even realizing it.

Why would a leader speak and behave in a toxic way if he or she recognizes the harm being done to the organization. Is it because leaders are just not aware of the link between their behaviors and performance of the group? Is it because they are totally unaware of the fact that their actions are toxic to others? Is it because they are lazy and just prefer to bark out orders rather than work to encourage people? While there are instances where any of these modes might be in play, I think other mechanisms are responsible for most of the lamentable behaviors of toxic leaders.

Toxic leaders do understand that people are generally unhappy working under them. What they fail to see is the incredible leverage they are leaving off the table. They just do not believe there is a better way to manage, otherwise they would do that. If you are in an organization, there is a possibility you are in daily contact with one or more toxic leaders. There are three possibilities here: 1) you have a leader working for you who is toxic, 2) you are a toxic leader yourself, but do not know it or want to admit it, or 3) you are working for a toxic leader or have one higher in the chain of command. I will give some tips you can use for each of these cases.

Toxic Leader Working for you – this person needs to become more aware that he or she is operating at cross purposes to the goals of the organization. Do this through education and coaching. Once awareness is there, then you can begin to shape the behavior through leadership development and reinforcement. It may be that this person is just not a good fit for a leadership role. If the behaviors are not improved, then this leader should be removed.

You are a toxic leader – it is probably not obvious to you how much damage is being done by your treatment of other people. They are afraid to tell you what is actually going on, so you are getting grudging compliance and leaving their maximum discretionary effort unavailable to the organization. The antidote here is to genuinely assess your own level of toxicity and change it if you are not happy with the answer. This can be accomplished through getting a leadership coach or getting some excellent training. Try to read at least one good leadership book every month.

You are working for a toxic leader – in my experience, this is the most common situation. It is difficult and dangerous to retrofit your boss to be less toxic. My favorite saying for this situation is, “Never wrestle a pig. You get all muddy and the pig loves it.” So what can you do that will have a positive impact on the situation without risking loss of employment? Here are some ideas that may help, depending on how severe the problem is and how open minded the boss is:

1. Create a leadership growth activity in your area and invite the boss to participate. Use a “lunch and learn” format where various leaders review some great books on leadership. I would start with some of the Warren Bennis books or perhaps Jim Collins’ Good to Great.

2. Suggest that part of the performance gap is a lack of trust in higher management and get some dialog on how this could be improved. By getting the boss to verbalize a dissatisfaction with the status quo, you can gently shape the issue back to the leader’s behaviors. The idea is to build a recognition of the causal relationship between culture and performance.

3. Show some of the statistical data that is available that links higher trust to greater productivity. The Trust Across America Website is a great source of this information.

4. Bring in a speaker who specializes in improving culture for a quarterly meeting. Try to get the speaker to interface with the problem leader personally offline. If the leader can see some glimmer of hope that a different way of operating would provide the improvements he or she is seeking, then some progress can be made.

5. Suggest some leadership development training for all levels in the organization. Here it is not necessary to identify the specific leader as “the problem,” rather, discuss how improved leadership behaviors at all levels would greatly benefit the organization.

6. Reinforce any small directional baby steps in the right direction the leader inadvertently shows. Reinforcement from below can be highly effective if it is sincere. You can actually shape the behavior of your boss by frequent reminders of the things he or she is doing right.

It is a rare leader who will admit, “Our performance is far off the mark, and since I am in charge, it must be that my behaviors are preventing people from giving the organization their maximum discretionary effort.” Those senior leaders who would seriously consider this statement are the ones who can find ways to change through training and coaching. They are the ones who have the better future. Most toxic leaders will remain with their habits that sap the vital energy from people and take their organizations in exactly the opposite direction from where they want to go.

Another key reason why toxic leaders fail to see the opportunity staring them in the face is a misperception about Leadership Development. The typical comment is, “We are not into the touchy-feely stuff here. We do not dance around the maypole and sing Kum-ba-yah while toasting marshmallows by the campfire.” The problem here is that several leadership training methods in the past have used outdoor experiential training to teach the impact of good teamwork and togetherness. Senior leaders often feel too serious and dignified for that kind of frivolity, so they sit in their offices and honestly believe any remedial training needs to be directed toward the junior leaders.

To reduce the impact of a toxic leader, follow the steps outlined above, and you may be able to make a large shift in performance over time while preserving your job. You can even use this article as food for thought and pass it around the office to generate dialog on how to chart a better future for the organization.

Drive Out Fear

April 15, 2012

Several decades ago, the now-deceased quality guru, W. Edwards Deming came up with a list of 14 key points for leaders to take that would accomplish what he called “profound knowledge.” Point number 8 on his list was “drive out fear.” I believe this was one of the most powerful concepts on his famous list. The reason is that the absence of fear is a prerequisite for higher trust, and trust is the most important ingredient to higher organizational productivity. In this article, I will share seven tips to help drive out fear.

Fear is one on the most basic of human instincts. It is fear that allowed humanoids to survive during primitive times, and it is still the basis of survival today. Without fear, you would not take the time to look both ways before crossing the street. Too much constraining fear in the organizational context can produce a gridlock of activities among the people that prevent the establishment of trust. Let’s look at some tips that leaders can use to reduce the fear in the workplace, and thus help to increase trust.

Be more transparent

When people are kept in the dark about what things are happening that can affect them, it is only natural to become afraid. When leaders contemplate draconian actions in sealed conference rooms, the word spreads like fire in a tinderbox. Some future actions must not be shared for legal reasons, but in many cases leaders attempt to shelter people from possible actions because they do not want to cause panic. That attitude is false logic. More panic ensues from speculation than would be present if full disclosure was given.

Reinforce Candor

Praise rather than punish people for sharing their observations about inconsistencies. In most organizations, people do not believe it is safe to tell leaders the truth about their observations. Their livelihood might be at stake. When leaders invite open dialog on sensitive issues and reinforce people who verbalize their fears, it tends to extinguish the rumor mill and build a foundation of higher trust.

Be Kind

Treating people with dignity and respect is nothing more than following the Golden Rule. If leaders consistently treated people the way they would like to be treated if the roles were reversed, there would be much less fear in the workplace. When people feel intimidated or bullied, they naturally cower in fear for what might happen to them.

Develop more Emotional Intelligence

Emotional Intelligence is your ability to understand emotions and your skill at being able to use that knowledge to manage yourself and your relationships with others. This skill allows leaders to act in ways that foster open dialog and lower fear. A very good book to help people gain higher EQ is Emotional Intelligence 2.0 by Bradberry and Greaves.

Level with people

Be honest with people and let them know of any improvement opportunities in a supportive way. When people know you are sincerely trying to help them improve, they will be less fearful. Each person has some insecurity regardless of his or her history. Helping people grow is a great way to lower fear.

Care about others

Fear has a hard time growing in an environment where people truly care about each other. The expressions of empathy and sympathy when people are struggling mean they will feel supported in their darkest hours. They forster courage and faith that most problems are only temporary setbacks, and that life itself is an amazing journey.

Trust other people

When trust is present, fear has a hard time surviving. When leaders show that they have faith in the ability of people to do the right things, then they do not project a kind of “gotcha” environment that is evident in many organizations. The result is that people are not on edge wondering when the next outburst will occur.

The absence of unnecessary fear is a huge benefit for any organization. Some fear is good for the self preservation of individuals and organizations, but keeping it at the lowest possible level is liberating and will bring out the best in people.