Fear: the Freedom Killer

Lance Creativity, Leadership, People Leave a Comment

This morning I looked out the back window while eating my breakfast and saw two rabbits looking for a breakfast of their own among the new plants my Wife just planted last weekend. She calls it “gardening”; Peter Rabbit and Benjamin Bunny here call it “stocking the salad bar.”

I adjusted the blinds ever so slightly so as to get a better look without freaking them out and ruining the moment. Predictably, my efforts failed.  As expected, both rabbits detected this movement, and the hard-wired warning klaxons inside their tiny amygdalas starting blaring the warning message: “THERE IS SOMETHING BIGGER THAN YOU NEARBY. YOU ARE ABOUT TO DIE. FREEZE!!!”

(I actually twisted open the blinds so that our cat could see them and do her predictable cat thing when there are animals afoot in the backyard. Of course, she didn’t see them, and my attempts to point them out to her only resulted in her looking at my finger instead of where my finger was pointing. Of course.)

Last summer I experienced something similar and wrote about the effects on teams and organizations when the people within them are scared and uncertain and — like rabbits — try to hide in plain sight to survive (“You Don’t See Me Here”). This morning’s version has me thinking about a different side of this same idea: the effect on the person itself.

When an organizational atmosphere is awash in uncertainty, insecurity, and the stress hormone cortisol, organizational productivity suffers as members trade risk and creativity for safety and conventionality. But, for the people experiencing that fear and being subsconsciously driven by it, there is an additional consequence besides decreased performance: decreased freedom. Fear doesn’t just stifle creativity — it limits options.

Those rabbits didn’t enter our backyard with the intent on standing frozen in the middle of the mulch. Their whole point in being there was to sample the green tasties my Wife had just worked so hard to plant. Likewise, few people genuinely aspire to the safe anonymity that bland, predictable mediocrity can bring in a large organization. For most, there is a yearning deep inside to matter though contributing something great to the team’s overall success. Unfortunately, the fear they feel imprisons them, allowing them to see the things they want to do but making for damn sure they don’t take the risk of actually trying to do them.

It’s a tragic scene, and far more often than not, an unnecessary one. It is certainly true that organizational Leaders can’t prevent events and results from creating tough circumstances. However, Leaders do have more options available to them than they often believe or acknowledge. What is sold by Leaders as a lack of any other options is often the imprisoning power of Fear at work in them … which can make dumb rabbits of even the best of us.

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