Fear is a Poor Advisor (Moving Us Away From Ethical Thinking To Protect Us)

By Linda Fisher Thornton

When we make decisions based on FEAR, our brains switch on the lower-level processor – which makes decisions based on a FIGHT-OR-FLIGHT response. The decision-making power of that part of our brain is extremely limited, turning our thoughts to lower level responses like “RUN!” or “HIT THEM FIRST.” Obviously, ethical decisions must be based on better thinking than “RUN” and “HIT THEM FIRST.”

Fear is a Poor Advisor

Our fear response takes us into PROTECT and DEFEND mode, and that mode causes us to shelter in place, retrench and protect our own interests. It drastically restricts the breadth of our thinking and doesn’t give much energy to thinking about our impact – what our choices will do to others.

Fear may generate feelings of anger as we turn our energy to “protect and defend.” Anger, like fear, is a poor advisor that pulls us away from ethical choices. 

“Anger results in systematic processing of anger-related information and selective use of
heuristics to evaluate information… This kind of processing is less than optimal for making ethical decisions because it induces biased, risky, and retaliatory thinking (Moons & Mackie, 2007).This type of encoding and use of social information results in alimited, self-focused interpretation of the situation, which has the potential to result in retaliatory or self-serving behaviors.” (Lenhart & Rabiner, 1995).

The Influence of Anger, Fear, and Emotion Regulation on Ethical Decision Making, Human Performance,Vol. 26, Iss. 4, 2013
According to the University of Lausanne video, Unethical Decision Making in Organizations“Fear is an emotion that works at high speed without involving reason. “  “Fear… may ultimately lead to ethical blindness.” In a way, it’s like snow blindness, when you can only see snow in all directions and lose your bearings. When the dominant emotion is fear, people lose their ethical grounding and may quickly wander away from the organization’s values. It’s not a conscious choice, since their brains have automatically switched to lower-level decision making to protect them from real or perceived harm. Fear creates a blindness that blocks our ability to see past the immediate threat. 
Ethical Leadership is a Fear-Free ZoneGreat leaders build trust and work hard to remove fear from the workplace. We know that fear works against efforts to maintain an ethical culture. Creating a fear-free zone should be a top leadership priority in organizations wanting to protect reputation and ethical brand value. 
Ethical Thinking is Intentional.Before you make key decisions this week, be sure fear isn’t blinding you to ethical consequences. To make sure it doesn’t happen to others, take the time to talk with your team. Ask them “Are we working in a fear-free zone?” “What could we do to improve?” “How well are we staying grounded in the ethical values our organization says are important?”

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