The Corporate Fear Factor

Authored By: Mikel J. Harry, Ph.D.

Look of Fear

The Result of Fear

One thing is for sure, we have all experienced fear at one time or another.  We intimately understand that fear can be a powerful force in determining the choices we make.  Generally speaking, we recognize that the proverbial “fear factor” can serve to protect or debilitate us.  On the flip side of this, we’ve all seen cases where fear is at the root of inducing irrational resistance to beneficial change, owing to such things as an overactive imagination or the need to embrace tradition and routine.

When it comes to cultural change in the workplace, the biggest problem corporations face is not the change itself, but the fear of change, not just on a personal level, but on a social level as well.  The impact of fear extends far beyond what initially meets the eye.  For example, fear is often unwittingly transmitted from the workplace to the home-front in terms of how a worker’s family feels about their current financial security and future well-being.  In a nutshell, the stealthy and debilitating role of the “fear factor” can wreak havoc in many ways, especially when it comes to personal and team productivity.

When fear finds its way into the workplace, it can quickly spread like an epidemic.  It has the power to distort information, generate rumors, disrupt informal channels of communication and induce a sense of distrust in the organization’s leadership.  As fear spreads, people begin to suspend their critical thinking, bypass crucial discussions and stick to the company line.

Fear can cause the inadvertent misalignment of personal values to those of the company.  For example, many people highly value other people’s perspectives and ideas, not just those that constitute “the company way.”  However, fear is so powerful, it can force them into an unwanted state of conformity and uniformity.  It can even cause us to support outdated conventions, policies and procedures.  Eventually, fear is morphed into distrust, not just of the “system,” but our leaders as well — even our peers.  Perhaps now it is easy to see why fear drives out faith and faith drives out fear.

Nonetheless, stepping out from behind one’s shield to embrace change represents risk; and it naturally follows that risk is related to fear. Hence, as long as risk is present, change will be viewed in the light of fear and; therefore, consequentially resisted. The bigger the change, the greater the perceived risk. As the perceived risk increases, the resistance to change increases.  To overcome the perceived consequences of risk, fear must be transformed into trust — a tall order indeed.

Over my years of deploying and implementing Six Sigma within large-scale corporations, I have observed five transitional phases that individuals (and groups alike) must successfully pass through in order to bridge the chasm between where a culture is and where its leadership wants it to go. Those phases are are provided in the graphic below.

5 Stage Culture Change

Five Stages to Victory

As each phase is made real, fear diminishes.  As fear is melted away, people’s attitudes unfreeze.  As attitudes thaw out, people naturally begin to see the positive side of things. Thus, the perceived risk is greatly reduced. Of course, this reduces fear which, in turn, gives us the incentive to continue forward until victory is achieved.  Once victory has been achieved, faith dominates, not fear.  Thus, fear can be transformed into a refreshed sense of trust.

When trust prevails, people (individually and collectively) begin to ask new questions, explore alternatives and cause innovations to bloom. People become happy and experience less stress (at work and home). Thus, we can now better understand why its so important to design and build a work environment that is free of fear.

Victory Symbol

Victory Eradicates Fear

About Mikel Harry

Dr. Harry has been widely recognized in many of today's notable publications as the Co-Creator of Six Sigma and the world's leading authority within this field. His book entitled Six Sigma: The Breakthrough Management Strategy Revolutionizing the World’s Top Corporations has been on the best seller list of the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Business Week, and He has been a consultant to many of the world’s top senior executives, such as Jack Welch, former CEO and Chairman of General Electric Corporation. Dr. Harry has also been a featured guest on popular television programs, such as the premier NBC show "Power Lunch." He is often quoted in newspapers like USA Today and interviewed by the media, such as The Economic Times. In addition, Dr. Harry has received many distinguished awards in recognition of his contributions to industry and society. At the present time, Dr. Harry is Chairman of the Six Sigma Management Institute and CEO of The Great Discovery, LLC.
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2 Responses to The Corporate Fear Factor

  1. Ricardo Anselmo de Castro says:

    Dear Dr. Harry, you say “The bigger the change, the greater the perceived risk. As the perceived risk increases, the resistance to change increases”. Does this mean that if I give someone 1M€ with no strings attached he will resist change? I claim that maybe we should talk about improvement management, rather than change management. As J. Welch once said “changing for the sake of it is annoying” and at a certain moment in time change can happen, though it may not be sustainable. Therefore we should be more concerned about improvement management; that is: at the end of the day how can we sustain the gains? I believe that when we want to deploy an improvement project first we should measure the level of stability in the area that was targeted for improvement. If stability is high it will be quite difficult to sustain improvements because people are comfortable with the status quo. One way to measure the level of stability would be to assess the magnitude of stress felt by those people. Only if stress is higher than a threshold is that improvement project should be deployed. Of course: this is under the assumption that any improvement project will bring a lower level of stress (which should be always true). Thank you for everything you have done regarding Six Sigma. Regards, Ricardo

    • Mikel Harry says:

      I am not sure if your post is a series of interrelated compound questions or just some diatribe to illuminate your personal opinion. So, what is the question — stated in a way that I can provide a short and direct answer. Certainly, neither one of us want to “write a book” to satisfy your intellectual need.

      Best of Regards,

      Mikel J. Harry, Ph.D.

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