This is the sixth in a series of blog posts that are based on some writing I did a long time ago and a lot of thinking I have done since. The basic premise is that the principles espoused by W. Edwards Deming to help manufacturers improve the quality of their products can be applied by individuals to improve the quality of their relationships. Previous posts in this series are linked at the end of this post.
Drive Out Fear
“Point 8. Drive out fear, so that everyone may work effectively for the company.”
–W. Edwards Deming
“The only thing we have to fear is . . . fear itself.”
—Franklin Delano Roosevelt
Note to the reader: Previous posts in this series have largely been comprised of the text from my original manuscript, written around 1989 (give or take a couple of years), with some updating and revision. This post consists of almost entirely new material.
Previous posts have also appeared in the sequence I had in the original manuscript. If I had it to do over, I would have moved this chapter up in the sequence because I think it may be the most important. In the 25 or more years since writing the original text, I have experienced and witnessed management through fear and intimidation in the workplace, and seen its devastating impacts on morale, productivity, and work environment. In my own life, I have come to understand how fear has often hampered me from developing and expressing some of my abilities.
This chapter has been entirely rewritten to include some understandings I have gained in recent months and years, and to provide the sources of some of those understandings. I think “driving out fear” could be the most critical step in improving relationships, helping an organization to function well, and living a happy and successful human life.
In Out of the Crisis, Deming writes, “No one can put in his best performance unless he feels secure. Se comes from the Latin, meaning without, cure means fear or care. Secure means without fear, not afraid to express ideas, not afraid to ask questions.” <p. 59>
He goes on to describe these “actual expressions of fear” in the workplace <p. 60-61>
- I am afraid to put forth an idea. I’d be guilty of treason if I did.
- I am afraid to contribute my best efforts to a partner or to a team, because someone else, because of my contribution, may get a higher rating than I get.
- My boss believes in fear. How can he manage his people if they don’t hold him in awe? Management is punitive.
- I’d like to understand better the reasons for some of the company’s procedures, but I don’t dare ask about them.
- I am afraid to admit a mistake.
Fear impacts many aspects of our personal lives – educational choices, career pursuits, where we choose to live, and, of course, our relationships. Some actual expressions of fear in our personal lives:
- I am afraid to express disagreement for fear of losing this friendship.
- I am afraid I would lose my father’s approval if I major in this field I really enjoy.
- I am afraid to ask a question because it could show my ignorance.
- I am afraid to pursue this career I would love because, basically, “I’m not good enough.”
- I am afraid of rejection.
- I am afraid I will fail.
While Deming encouraged organizations to eliminate fear-based management, he gave little specific advice about how to do that. Fortunately, others have stepped in. One especially good example for leaders and managers is Driving Fear out of the Workplace: Creating the high-trust, high-performance organization by Kathleen Ryan and Dan Oestreich. Among other things, the authors provide guidance on how to identify fear-based managers and coach them in trust-based management. If you are working in a fear-based management structure but not in a leadership position, their companion book, The Courageous Messenger: How to speak up successfully at work, provides strategic and tactical advice for the employee who sees and feels the impacts of a fear-based workplace.
How might we “drive out fear” in our personal lives?
One of the co-authors of the books cited above, Dan Oestreich, is now a speaker, trainer, and leadership coach. His website, unfoldingleadership.com, includes a blog that I always find helpful in my own personal growth. In a recent post, he discusses the idea of “getting outside your comfort zone”. He reflects on how he “learned” public speaking:
What seems truer, looking back, is that over time what I did was experience my genuine comfort zone, the one I’d had all along, even before I did public speaking of any kind. My learning had nothing to do with “expanding” that zone or becoming another version of myself. What I experienced, instead, was simply a flow and wholeness, of being in everything, not outside of anything, even a previous me. Sure, it took awhile to let go of my discomfort, but the experience was exactly that; not gaining some special skill or acting courageously so much as letting go of something that was, in the end, not me. [emphases are Oestreich’s]
Our “comfort zone” isn’t the realm of activities that our insecurities, self-doubt, and expectations of others have limited us to. Instead, our true comfort zone consists of activities that we instinctively know how to do, when we let go of our fears. Oestreich writes:
The state of being afraid of our wholeness is not a comfort zone, but a dis-comfort zone, a dis-ease we may be trying to habituate ourselves to. 
How can we find that wholeness? I think embracing our wholeness and transcending our fears sometimes involves taking actions that others might view as risky.
In her TED talk titled “The power of vulnerability”,Brene Brown describes learning the stories of thousands of people. She was eventually able to identify a subgroup in her study which she called “whole-hearted – living from a deep sense of worthiness”. She found four qualities in common with all of the “whole-hearted” individuals:
- Courage: “To tell the story of who you are with your whole heart. … These folks had, very simply, the courage to be imperfect.”
- Compassion: “They had the compassion to be kind to themselves first and then to others. Because as it turns out, we can’t practice compassion toward others if we can’t treat ourselves kindly.”
- Connection: “They had a sense of connection – and this was the hard part – as a result of authenticity. They were willing to let go of who they thought they should be in order to be who they were.”
- Vulnerability: “They fully embraced vulnerability. They believed that what made them vulnerable made them beautiful.”
To be vulnerable is to face the kinds of fears listed above – to ask something you want to know the answer to; to try something, knowing that it might not work out; to be the first to say, “I love you.”
A number of times in my life I have “embraced vulnerability” though that’s not how I would have characterized it. I didn’t consciously think, “I am going to be vulnerable now, and expose myself to a risk I think is worth taking.” Instead, I felt that my integrity or a closely-held value was threatened. I felt driven to act; looking back, I also felt, at least in some aspects, I was in my true comfort zone.
In 2000, I ran for a seat in the state legislature because the person who held the seat – my representative! – used homophobic language against an openly gay member of the State House on the House floor. (This was during the legislative proceedings that led to Vermont’s Civil Union law.) I felt he had violated the sanctity of his office and I could not let that person continue to act as my representative. Going in to that political campaign, of course I feared rejection and half a dozen other things. I lost the election, so in some sense I was rejected. But what I gained from the experience far out-stripped the electoral loss.
Most of the times that I have “embraced vulnerability” and “stayed in my true comfort zone” are not appropriate to describe in a public venue like this blog. In every instance, my worst fears didn’t materialize, and the benefits of my action were stronger than I had predicted.
Fear is a response to a future possibility, not the present moment. If the present moment is awful then we feel pain or grief, not fear. Too often, our fears, legitimate or not, keep us from exploring our true comfort zone, or taking the risk of being vulnerable.
Drive fear out of your life – stay in your true comfort zone, and dare to be vulnerable!
Brown, Brene. “The power of vulnerability.” TED. TEDx Houston, June 2010. Web. June 29, 2014. https://www.ted.com/talks/brene_brown_on_vulnerability (I learned of this TED Talk during a class in my conflict management curriculum. It has been viewed nearly 16 million times; if you’re not in that count, I highly recommend watching the entire talk.)
Previous posts in this series
Quality of Life – Introduction