PonderThis: The Power of Fear

NPR ran a piece today on the use of fear in political campaigning  (You can hear the piece here).  While they were focused on the use of fictions to fan fear in the health care debate, my attention was drawn by the comments of Joseph LeDoux, a professor of neuroscience at New York University.  He was talking about why fear is so powerful.

Professor LeDoux described fear as both paralyzing and contagious.  “…once fear is aroused in your brain, it tends to take over and dominate.”  A brain paralyzed with fear is unable to focus on patient logic.  Fear, it turns out, is powerful in the human psyche for a reason: survival.  “If there’s a chance that you’ll be harmed, then you better attend to it. In other words, you better be afraid of it and be careful about what’s going on.”  And, even the most primitive species have a way to warn others of their kind that there is something to be afraid of nearby.

Subtle biochemical mechanisms for communicating fear across a society make it contagious, which provides an early warning system for others.  (If you follow the link above, listen past the politics to get to the biology and you will hear Professor LeDoux explain some of these mechanisms.) While this was a piece focused on the debate over health care, it fueled my own curiosity about fear’s role in leadership.

These are economic  times to try our patience and our courage.  And if humans have evolved no bio-mechanical ways to transmit fear, we have the media to fill in the gap with story after story about economic collapse, ruin and damage.  So a leader of an organization in these times has to deal with the influence of fear.

Skilled leaders understand the impact of economic fear on their organizations and work to balance fear with appropriate risk mitigation and positive communications.  One  of my CEO clients put it this way:  “I cannot and should not try to eliminate reasonable fear from the view of either executives or the wider workforce.  Some awareness of how challenging our competitive climate is right now will help keep us sharp.  However, even if I cannot provide good news as a counterbalance, my job is to keep them more focused on our strategy for dealing with tough times and clear about our response as a company than they are on fear.”

Seems right to me.  What about your company.  How do you deal with fear?

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