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Fear Dynamics 101 — Part Three: Counting the Costs of Fear Dynamics

Welcome to Part Three of my four-part series: Fear Dynamics 101. In Part One, “Defining Fear Dynamics,” I introduced the concept. In Part Two, “Recognizing the Warning Signs,” I illustrated several common symptoms of fear that arise in group settings, so you know what to look for. In this part, I discuss the consequences of allowing fear to govern business behaviors, relationships, and interactions.

I would not be discussing the problems associated with fear dynamics (the behavior and communication patterns that emerge during interpersonal interactions involving fear) if there were no costs that people and organizations suffer. Unfortunately, the potential costs of fear dynamics are quite substantial.

When fear operates unchecked or acknowledged, people often respond in the following ways:

  • Stop asking questions
  • Show little to no interest in innovating or sharing ideas or information
  • Disengage with colleagues and clients
  • Ignore or downplay problems and mistakes
  • Discourage or disregard new ideas or suggestions
  • Make more mistakes
  • Blame others
  • Instigate or engage in conflict
  • Undermine initiatives
  • Leave

As a result, organizations suffer. Here is a short list of the many ways in which organizations suffer as a result of fear dynamics:

  • Stagnation sets in, slowing or shutting down adaptation to ever-changing market conditions.
  • Productivity drops as people lose motivation and engage in unproductive and counterproductive activities.
  • Collaboration gives way to internal competition and conflict as trust erodes.
  • Potentially lucrative deals and partnerships are undermined.
  • Absenteeism increases in direct correlation with stress levels.
  • Malaise and disregard for others in an organization or a group increase, resulting in dehumanization.
  • Turnover increases as frustrated employees look for the exits.
  • Organizations become more reactive than proactive, leading to poor decision-making.
  • An organization’s risk tolerance declines.

Case in Point

I was working with a client who wanted to team up with another party to purchase and become partners in a business. One party had the skill and operational knowledge, and the other party, the opportunity and capital. Acting together, they had the potential to create something unique and greater than the sum of their two parts, something greater than either of them could accomplish individually.

Unfortunately, the initial excitement and energy was quickly infected by anxiety and fear. The party with the opportunity and capital recognized the value and necessity of the other party’s skill and operational knowledge and began to feel threatened by it — that he would somehow be ousted from the partnership or be relegated to serving as a silent partner and would lose some level of control. Instead of discussing his anxiety openly, he refused to go along with certain terms of the agreement out of fear that by agreeing he would expose himself to the risk he feared most.

The other party (with the skill and operational knowledge) interpreted this hesitancy as a power play instead of as anxiety. Instead of working to understand the underlying cause of his prospective partner’s reluctance to agree to certain terms, he shut down and started to use phrases like “take it or leave it,” which only fed the other party’s existing fears.

Unfortunately, in such situations, potential deals often fall apart, but neither party is usually to blame. The blame can only be placed on the fear dynamic and the failure of the two parties to recognize and address it. When deals fall apart due to fear dynamics, I find the situation tragic. Certainly, there are times when two people just should not do a deal; I am not so Pollyannaish to believe that everyone can find a way to work together. However, there are more times when I have seen people who are a great fit emotionally and culturally and who have a great idea for a joint project struggle or fail to execute because fear dynamics begin to swirl and are not mitigated or managed.

Recognizing and Addressing Fear Dynamics

Nearly every organization suffers from fear dynamics in some way, but many organizations fail to recognize the problem, and leadership within the organization is often too deeply immersed in the dynamic to view it objectively.

For the sake of your business, your career, and even your personal relationships, I encourage you to increase your awareness of fear dynamics. Look for the warning signs, as described in Part Two of this series, and ask questions to find out what’s at the root of what people are saying or doing, and then work to address the underlying issue in your relationships as a start and then hopefully grow to affect your groups and organizations. Do not let fear dynamics run or ruin your organization.

For additional details on how to identify fear dynamics that could be harming your organization, tune in next week for Part Four of this series: “Reaping the Benefits of a Fear Audit.”

Is fear affecting your organization or workplace? If it is, please post a comment to share your story and insights. Describe the incident and give your assessment of the damage it is causing. How is the fear of one individual influencing the actions of the others in the group? Does anyone involved realize what is going on?

Disclaimer: The information in this blog post is provided for general informational purposes only, and may not reflect the current law in your jurisdiction. No information contained in this post should be construed as legal advice from Stephen Dietrich, nor is it intended to be a substitute for legal counsel on any subject matter. No reader of this post should act or refrain from acting on the basis of any information included in, or accessible through, this Post without seeking the appropriate legal or other professional advice on the particular facts and circumstances at issue from a lawyer licensed in the recipient’s state, country or other appropriate licensing jurisdiction.

About the Author: Stephen Dietrich is an attorney and author who has a passionate interest in the human side of business. His distinctive combination of legal and business knowledge, human insight, and dedication to clients makes him uniquely qualified to help corporate leaders and other C-level executives navigate high-value mergers and acquisitions, restructure transactions, and manage day-to-day operations. Through this blog, Stephen shares his extensive experience and unique personal and professional insights in the hope of stirring thought and dialogue that leads to ever deepening insights and understanding. For more information, please visit

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