Who's afraid of the big bad wolf?

Just like monsters in fairytales, corporate fear lives and breathes in the corners and the shadows.

We mostly pretend we can't see it, but we all know it's there… lurking. 

We've all felt that fear of being 'found out'. Of not being good enough at our job. Of failing, or having colleagues politicking and ‘white-anting’ us and our work.

Would you admit to being afraid at work? Would your colleagues?

At their heart, organisations either run on trust (which I wrote about here) or fear.

How is fear created?

In her book Daring Greatly, Brené Brown notes that ‘Shame breeds fear’. If we want to understand and change the fear within our organisation, we need to understand how and when shame is used. 

Sometimes shame is buried and implicit and can be found, as Brown outlines, in: ‘Blaming, gossiping, favouritism and name-calling’. Sometimes it is much more explicit, almost used as a ‘management tool’ – as seen when leaders ‘criticise subordinates in front of colleagues, deliver public reprimands, or set up reward systems that deliberately belittle, shame, or humiliate people’. 

Have you seen any of these behaviours in your organisation? Have you seen them in your team?

Giles Hilary and Vip Vyad in an article for INSEAD – Does your organisation run on fear? note that: ’Fear kills initiative and innovation. It renders your smart, talented people useless.' 

They suggest looking out for:

  • An absence of frank and open dialogue in meetings, with the important conversations happening in hallways 
  • A reluctance to participate for fear of being ridiculed or overlooked 
  • ‘Going through the motions' due to an unspoken belief that action plans won't work, and a resulting lack of commitment to them.
  • Bad news not being passed 'up'.

Pulling the wool...

When I was a child, I loved the story of the Emperor’s New Clothes by Danish author Hans Christian Andersen. It tells the tale of two weavers who promise to make a new suit of clothes for an Emperor. However, there is no suit. To maintain their ruse, the weavers say that the suit is invisible to anyone who is stupid or incompetent. 

The Emperor parades his new 'suit' before his subjects and no one dares to say that he is in his underwear. Except one brave child who cries out 'But he isn't wearing anything at all!'

Part of being a leader is knowing what behaviour you are, and are not, willing to ignore. When we ignore damaging behaviour in our organisation and in our teams, we are allowing fear to grow in corners.

The non-verbal knockdown

A simple behaviour you can focus on today is the seemingly harmless ‘sigh’ and ‘eye roll’ (extreme example here courtesy of Tina Fey!).  


When we roll our eyes or emphatically sigh, at a suggestion or comment from a colleague, we are, in effect, dismissing what they have said.

We don't necessarily realise it, but we are not just dismissing their idea, we are dismissing them. Sighing and rolling our eyes, conveys disgust. It creates shame. And it's a very short step from feeling shame to feeling fear. 

So, back to our question 'Who’s afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?'. We all are… but perhaps the real question we should ask ourselves is: 'Am I being the Big Bad Wolf?'

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Jules SmithComment