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Fear Dynamics 101 – Part Two: Recognizing the Warning Signs of Fear Dynamics

Welcome to Part Two of my four-part series: Fear Dynamics 101. In Part One, “Defining Fear Dynamics,” I introduced the concept and presented an example to illustrate how fear dynamics threatened to derail an acquisition I was working on for a client with the help of an accounting group. In this part, I describe common fear dynamics warning signs, so you know what to look for.

(Photo by Fineas Anton on Unsplash)

Perhaps what is most sinister about fear dynamics (the behavior and communication patterns that emerge during interpersonal interactions involving fear) is that they arise from causes unseen. Like a tsunami that swells from shifting land masses miles below sea level, fear dynamics wash over everyone involved, often without them ever sensing the cause.

Note: Although I recommend ultimately working toward eliminating fear dynamics through proactive processes, learning how to mitigate or manage existing fear dynamics can be equally beneficial and is often a necessary first step — a step that requires the ability to recognize when a fear dynamic is at work.

One of the first steps in managing fear dynamics is to learn to “smell fear” when it is influencing the behavior of one or more parties in a group. (The “group” may be an internal group, a client service group of several companies, or a group working on a transaction in an adversarial setting.) Here are a few of the most common warning signs that fear is influencing a person’s behavior or a group dynamic:

  • Peculiar behavior or communication: When a person (you or someone else in the group) is acting out of character or communicating counterproductively, something is going on beneath the surface, and that something is often fear.
  • Lack of communication: Fear shuts down communication; people are reluctant to say what they think, because they are afraid of the potential ramifications. For example, if people are trying to solve a problem and nobody is talking, something is stifling fluid interaction.
  • Self-deprecation: Self-deprecation is a classic symptom of insecurity, typically resulting from fear.
  • Lack of eye contact: This is another classic sign of insecurity, typically inspired by fear.
  • Lack of motivation and innovation: People are naturally creative and generous, unless they are afraid. Maybe the person has had an idea shot down or commandeered in the past and is now afraid to share her ideas or even attempt to think creatively.
  • Excessive carbon copying of email messages: When personnel carbon copy superiors excessively, they are usually insecure either with their own ideas or in how ideas are received and developed.
  • Explosive outbursts, especially from leadership: Fear is often expressed as anger, which evokes more fear. When leadership is the source of the outbursts, you can be certain that the organization, or at least the group, is operating in a culture of fear.
  • Inability to admit mistakes or limitations or a tendency to blame: Fear often places people on the defensive, making them unable to recognize or take responsibility for mistakes or acknowledge their own limitations. This fragility destroys the fluid interaction of a group that is necessary for success. An individual may even feign confidence or competence to prevent others from suspecting weakness.
  • Lack of humor, warmth, and confidence: When people are afraid, they stuff their emotions and begin to lose what makes them human. Once the human connection is lost, then it is less likely for compassion and connection to be part of a group, which will make polarization on tough issues much easier to take root.
  • Lack of cooperation: Fear of success or failure may cause people to behave and interact in counterproductive ways, often subconsciously, to undermine progress.

When fear is at work in an organization, it takes a heavy toll. In Fear Dynamics 101, Part Three, “Counting the Costs of Fear Dynamics,” you discover how fear dynamics can hamper performance and harm an organization.

Think about a time in a personal or work/business relationship in which you felt fear. How did that fear affect your performance or influence what you said or did? Please post a comment below to share your story and insights with readers.

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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