The Fear Factor

Why a sense of belonging is crucial for a healthy corporate culture

By Dirk Verburg

According to Professor of Psychology Kip Williams, the human race ows its success to the fact that we learned to collaborate in groups. We learned that through organizing ourselves in tribes, we hugely increased our chances to survive in a hostile environment. The tribe enabled us to protect ourselves from wild animals, other tribes and food shortages.

The prospect of people who were being ‘ostracized’ (forced to leave the tribe) looked bleak. In pre-historic times, ostracism did not only result in social, but also in a certain physical death. People, who were kicked out of their ‘tribe’ and left to their own devices, were doomed to die, because they could not defend themselves effectively against predators, other tribes and could no longer collect sufficient food.

Because of the latent fears of ostracism that human beings have, managing human behavior by using this threat requires surprisingly little effort. Setting an example by ostracizing just a handful of individuals in a visible manner is enough to instill a sense of fear in a complete community.

A number of business leaders use this fear of ostracism deliberately. They think the best way to ensure an optimal performance is to keep their employees “on their toes”. They do so for instance by:

  • Being structurally non-committal in one-to-one meetings when their direct reports ask them for direct feedback on their performance
  • Deliberately undermining the authority of their direct reports by having conversations with indirect reports which they should have with their direct reports
  • Singling out one or more direct reports during team meetings and criticising them publicly in an unjustified and unpredictable manner, etc.  

Well-known psychologists stress the importance of a sense of belonging for people as one of the most (Abraham Maslow), if not the most (William Glasser), important of basic human needs. This means that one could put question marks regarding the behavior of the aforementioned business leaders from an ethical point of view. After all, they are withholding the satisfaction of an elementary human need from their fellow human beings.

What is the big deal?

Ok, so some employees might feel uncomfortable in their jobs and the behavior of certain leaders might be far from ideal. What is the big deal?

The big deal is that fear of ostracism causes risk-avoiding behavior, which can have a very negative impact on the performance of an organization or a part thereof.

Depending on the type of organization, risk-avoiding behavior can result in a number of unintended consequences:

  • Innovation will slow down – Innovation requires experiments and experiments sometimes fail (by definition). If employees operate in an environment where not taking risks is expected to lead to better personal outcomes than taking risks, most employees will prefer not to take risks. They will do so even when they think the result of taking this risk might be beneficial for the business. On the short term, this will limit the innovative capacity of the company; on the long(er) term it will ensure risk-avoidance will become part of the corporate culture.
  • Decision-making processes will take longer – In organizations where there is a significant fear for ostracizing, employees will seek certainty in governance (leaving the decision to someone else), formalized decision-making (focus on the process, rather than on the content) and collectively owned decisions (avoiding personal responsibility). This will increase bureaucracy and lead to organizations where no one does anything wrong…but no one does anything right either. It will also lead organizations to miss time-to-market windows.
  • Internal focus – Fear will increase an impetus for safety. As a result, employees will be inclined to focus on pleasing internal stakeholders, rather than satisfying external ones (e.g. customers and shareholders). In time, this will result in a situation where ideas and proposals are no longer evaluated on basis of their expected contribution to the external goals of the organization (e.g. profitability and customer satisfaction), but to the degree in which these proposals are expected to be aligned with the (personal) interests of important internal stakeholders. The outside perspective, which is required to sustain the organization, will gradually shift to an internal one. In extreme cases this can lead to situations where corporate fraud is sustained, despite wide-spread knowledge thereof in the organization.
  • Lower staff morale – Staff morale will generally be lower in organizations without a sense of belonging. One of the reasons for this is the unhealthy competition between co-workers, which typically often occurs in these environments. Unhealthy competition is likely to flourish when employees have the idea that putting co-workers in a less favorable light will increase their own chances of survival. Lower staff morale has very negative implications for the organization; it will lead to a lower engagement level, which in turn will result in a lower productivity. It is also likely to result in a lack of loyalty of staff, which can manifest itself through undesirable turnover.

Implications for performance management

For leaders of organizations, this means that it is necessary to reflect on their leadership style. If innovation, time to market, preventing institutional fraud and employee morale are important, creating a sense of belonging might have to become a priority instead of an afterthought.

A sense of belonging does not mean that unsatisfactory performance should be tolerated. On the contrary: in order to enable the tribe to survive, all members need to contribute. What it does mean, however, is that clear parameters need to be established for the required performance in order to remain a member of the tribe.

Too many organizations go through yearly appraisal cycles with objective-setting meetings, (mid-year) appraisals, etc., but give bad performance ratings and dismiss employees on the basis of (subjective) criteria, which have nothing to do with the goals that were set and evaluated in these processes.

It is a misunderstanding to think that predictability in the way people are treated obstructs innovation. On the contrary, it is the very basis for innovation. To quote Canadian lawyer and author Allan Dare Pearce: “We need consistency and predictability, and a sense of proper placement. We need these things before we can mold the world into what we know it can be.”

Originally published February 2, 2017 on

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