Recognizing and Overcoming Fear-Based Leadership

Written by Mariann Hyland

Founder, Hyland Solutions

October 17, 2022

Media credit: Suzy Hazelwood on Pexels, Erbs55 on Pixabay


I’m publishing my first blog post this month to celebrate the first-year anniversary of launching Hyland Solutions. I am grateful for the many clients I have worked with; the compassion, courage, and innovation I have witnessed; and the challenging situations I have helped resolve. I’m sharing key insights that I gleaned over the past year in this and future blogs, and I look forward to continued partnership and collaboration to heal conflict, repair harm, and inspire transformation.

Like many people during the COVID-19 pandemic, I developed a greater connection to a higher purpose through spiritual practice, meditation, and discovery. Preparing for the possibility of death sparked an interest in preparing to live. What emerged was a strong desire to use my talents, gifts, and abilities to focus on conflict resolution, leadership coaching, and diversity, equity, and inclusion consulting in the workplace. I immersed myself in studying individual, ancestral, and collective trauma, and the neurobiology of stress, fear, and racism. I was seeking to understand how trauma, stress, and fear manifest in the workplace, and how leaders and organizations can become trauma-informed and trauma-resilient.


Historic Roots of Fear and Trauma in Institution of Plantation Slavery

tufts of cotton

I deepened my understanding of the historic roots of fear and trauma in the institution of slavery, and how it inspired systems of hierarchical controls used in our modern-day workplace. The New York Times’ “1619” Podcast, Episode 2: The Economy That Slavery Built, described how the American economy was founded on brutality, and how labor management strategies and tactics used during slavery were designed to increase the production of cotton using fear, violence, and intimidation. The episode illuminated that many modern-day techniques of supervision have their genesis in the system of plantation slavery; they were developed by leaders who were trying to squeeze as much productivity out of their enslaved workforce as possible. Fear and violence served a purpose, as evidenced by the fact that by the eve of the Civil War, the average enslaved worker picked 400 percent more cotton than their counterpart did 60 years earlier.

We have not fully shaken this shadow of slavery from our economy, which impacts all workers, regardless of race. Nevertheless, we have evolved in our understanding of neurobiology, human behavior and development, and social science. We know that fear-based systems don’t create sustainable, innovative organizations. To the contrary, fear impedes creative flow and innovation, because people who live and work in fear focus on survival and avoiding threats of harm.

The pandemic and racial uprising revealed that our task at hand is to collectively address systemic racism and to heal from and repair the harm caused by workplaces that are steeped in cultures of fear. Workers are seeking psychologically safe workplaces where they feel like they belong. They want to be seen, heard, valued, and treated with respect. They want to authentically express who they are and to be supported in developing and sharing their talents and gifts with the organization. They want their humanity to be recognized and to be supported in having work-life balance.

How do organizations break out of fear-based survival mode and create psychologically safe, conflict-resilient cultures? It starts at the top with recognizing and overcoming fear-based leadership and its toxic consequences.


Recognizing and Overcoming Fear-Based Leadership

Are you or others in your organization leading with fear? If so, you’re not alone. Here are some questions to ask yourself to assess whether you are inadvertently embedding fear into your leadership style and organizational culture.

    • Do you find yourself getting angry, agitated, or volatile with others?
    • Are you noticing that your leadership team is reticent to share ideas and views that differ from yours?
    • Are you surrounded by “yes” people who fawn over you?
    • Do you have difficulties addressing and resolving conflict?
    • Is your leadership team and organization conflict avoidant?
    • Is your culture passive-aggressive?
    • Are there taboo subjects in your organization that are impermissible to discuss?
    • Are there winners and losers or insiders and outsiders on your leadership team?
    • Do you find it hard to take accountability or ownership for your impact on others in the organization?
    • Do you demand perfection, negatively judge, or shame others?
    • Do you skip breaks, work excessive hours, and neglect your self-care?

If the answer to even one of these questions is yes, you may be leading with fear-based tendencies that signal to others that they are not psychologically safe in your workplace. When people experience fear in their environment, their bodies react with a threat response—the purpose of which is to ensure their survival. Threat responses, triggered by the release of hormones in the body that reduce a person’s ability to focus and concentrate on performance, include fight, flight, freeze, fawn, or appease responses.

Are you interested in exploring these concepts further? Do you want to develop strategies and skills to manage fear that might be derailing your leadership effectiveness and infecting your organization’s culture? Hyland Solutions offers leaders and leadership teams support and coaching to assist in creating psychologically safe, conflict-resilient leadership teams and cultures.

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