Fear Disrupts Human Development (And Ethics)

By Linda Fisher Thornton

Ethical leaders create fear-free work environments, which are foundational in building and maintaining ethical culture and protecting reputation and ethical brand value. This week let’s build on research previously shared in a popular post and explore additional insights about the negative impact of fear-inducing leadership on individuals and organizations.

Fear Interferes With Reason

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.” Fear-induced ethical blindness can be compared to snow blindness, when you can only see snow in all directions and lose your sense of direction.

When their 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 long-term consequences as we deal with an immediate threat. 

Fear Restricts Learning, Performance and Ethics

Fear interferes with people’s learning and performance, which harms individuals, teams, and organizations. It also interferes directly with people’s ability to make ethical choices. So we could say that leader behavior that generates fear acts as a “kill switch” for ethical thinking.

“Fear can interrupt processes in our brains that allow us to regulate emotions, read non-verbal cues and other information presented to us, reflect before acting, and act ethically.”

Impact of Fear and Anxiety, University of Minnesota

When we experience 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 have to be grounded in better and more complex thinking than “Run!” and “Hit Them First!”

Fear Leads to Self-Protection

Our fear response takes us into Protect and Defend Mode, causing us to shelter in place, retrench, and protect our own interests. It drastically restricts the breadth and depth of our thinking and doesn’t leave us much energy to think about our impact – what our choices will do to others.

Fear may also generate feelings of anger toward others 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 a limited, self-focused interpretation of the situationwhich has the potential to result in retaliatory or self-serving behaviors.” (Lenhart & Rabiner, 1995).

Kligyte, Connelly, Thiel & Devenport, The Influence of Anger, Fear, and Emotion Regulation on Ethical Decision Making, Human Performance, Vol. 26, Iss. 4, 2013

Fear Interferes With Human Development

Experiencing long-term fear early in life negatively impacts human development. According to the Center for the Developing Child at Harvard, persistent fear and anxiety can affect young children’s learning and development, and it is important to intervene to “prevent enduring impairment that can lead to a lifetime of poor mental and physical health, diminished economic productivity, and antisocial behavior.”

“Science shows that exposure to circumstances that produce persistent fear and chronic anxiety can have lifelong consequences by disrupting the developing architecture of the brain.”

Center on the Developing Child, Harvard University

This negative impact on human development is not just limited to children. Adult development also requires moving past fear. Soren Eilertsen writes about individual and leader development in his Chief Learning Officer article Debunking the Major Myth of Engagement: “Level 5 capacity, or ‘purpose,’ corresponds to Maslow’s self-actualization need. Here the mindset is ‘life is great’ and there is a sense of living in passionate pursuit of purpose while also in service to others. While the first four stages are primarily fear driven, the individual crosses the fear barrier with a sense of inspiring purpose at level 5.”

Creating a Fear-Free Zone

Fear disrupts learning, concentration, emotional regulation, information processing, and decision making. No amount of good pay and benefits can compensate for working in a fearful culture. Fearful people can’t give their best ethical performance, and even repeated organizational efforts to improve trust and build an ethical culture will fall flat in a fear-based environment.

Fear can cause ethical blindness, reducing our ability to think about ethical consequences. To make sure it doesn’t happen in your organization, take time to talk with your team. Ask “Are we working in a fear-free zone?” “How well do we apply our stated organizational values?” “Where could we improve leader behavior and communication?” “How well are we creating a fear-free zone?”

Unleash the Positive Power of Ethical Leadership


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