Find the Fear and Swim Upstream to Trust

Fear is the root negative human emotion. Scratch the surface of other negative feelings, and you will find fear at the core.

Fear Drives Behavior

If you accept this description of fear, it means you can roadmap people’s emotions. It also means you can diagnose your own.

Fear is the main driver of dysfunctional human behavior. When you see people being passive aggressive, secretive, avoiding, combative, resentful, backstabbing, gossiping, or otherwise misbehaving, teach yourself to ask, “What are they afraid of?” This drives good consulting and coaching.

Fear is a major driver of organization behavior. A culture that uses negative norms (think “that’s a career limiting move”) to enforce compliance is an organization that is fear-based. Learn to notice negative norms, so you can  envision alternatives.

Fear motivates much buying behavior. B2B marketers are taught to “find the pain point.” B2C marketers know the desire to join the in crowd is trumped by the fear of being in the out crowd; “you smell” out-shouts “you can smell nice.”

Fear plays a huge role in politics, as the daily papers demonstrate daily.

In all these cases, fear is the enemy of trust. And trust is the antidote to fear.

Trust Drives Relationship

At root, fear is the fear of a bad relationship—an Other who will hurt us. The effect is to keep us out of relationship.

Trust is the hope of a good relationship. It inclines us to seek relationship with an Other, so that we can gain the benefits of relationship.

You create self-trust by facing and overcoming your own fears. You create trust with Others by trusting them – by being the one willing to first face the fear.

You create interpersonal trust by taking a risk, encouraging the Other to reciprocate. You create organizational trust by creating an environment that encourages emotional risk-taking, dissipating fear.

Trust in politics comes from uniting, not from dividing. Trust in government comes more from principled policies and sharp enforcement than from finely detailed procedures, prohibitions and protocols.

Trust in a culture comes about by ten thousand daily acts of etiquette, courtesy, and generosity, each taken with no calculated return on investment aforethought – and each returned in the same spirit.

Trust in all these relationships rests on an ability to directly confront and speak the truth to each other.  Not speaking truth is the functional equivalent of lying; it feeds fear and alienation, and is the first step to trust-rot.

(Thanks to Seth Godin for jogging my brain on this one)

6 replies
  1. Robert
    Robert says:

    I loved this article, Charlie!  Napoleon Hill in “Think and Grow Rich” said there are six basic fears: Poverty, Criticism, Lost Love, Ill Health, Old Age, and Death. I think most of the business fear you describe falls into the purview of Poverty and Criticism.  For me, the two most significant sentences in the article are: “You create self-trust by facing and overcoming your own fears.  You create trust with Others by trusting them–by being the one willing to first face the fear.”  None of us enter the Arena of Achievement unless we’ve found a way to believe in ourselves, and “belief,” I think, is just another way of saying “trust.” 

  2. Chris
    Chris says:

    Ah ah – but fear, like anger, can also be a clarion call to us that something needs action. So a complete lack of fear may make us complacent. Refering to a recent Trust blog about overly high expectations, I wonder whether the removal of fear of starvation, poverty, a creative life, the need for employment, by offering up State Benefits to the unemployed (or unemployable), is the reason so many live with not much fear of anything. This lack of fear – creating a so what if I am sacked, I’ll live on Benefits mentality, so what if I haven’t got a job, I’ll manage on Government Handouts, may be the downside of removing fear. I can seee all the points you make and agree with every one. But the obverse seems to have some issues as well.

  3. Charles H. Green
    Charles H. Green says:


    Thanks for the link-back to Napoleon Hill; if the message fits with vintage material like that, I figure it’s solid.

    Chris, I also agree with your points completely. Which raises the interesting question: what’s the relationship between fear and complacency? It occurs to me there are two possible answers:

    1. It is an issue of balance, you need a little bit of fear to keep from being complacent, and the right question is how to find the golden balance;
    2. It is not an issue of balance, but of paradoxical co-existence, and the right question is how to live fearlessly, yet without losing the something that keeps us energized.

    I like to believe it’s #2, but – what do you think?

  4. Chris Downing
    Chris Downing says:

    I suppose I might replace ‘fear’ with ‘concern’. Concern that I do a great job, protect my family and friends. Concern that I deliver value for money at high quality that keeps me gainfully employed. And, concern that I contribute to society as a whole. There has to be some higher motivation that gets us up in the morning and motivated. I think fear as a long term motivation might prove to be emotionally corrosive.
    You might use the word ‘worry’ instead of ‘fear’ – which like ‘fear’, seems to have much greater downside associated with it than ‘concern’.
    The trouble with using fear in the workplace is that it has such bad downsides. I think you might temporarily motivate someone by using fear – but there are longer term consequences. Your fear tactic will never be forgotten – not only by that person, but by all the others they tell. You only have to lash out once in anger, or evoking fear, and it will be remembered forever by anyone who saw it or was told about it. Possibly unravelling years of thoughtful actions. (I know, I’ve done it, and and I’ve been a spectator as well. People remember it for decades.)
    In reality though, fear seems to work in some situations – but only with subordinates who put themselves in the way of it and somehow like being shouted at and threatened on a regular basis.
    A friend of mine from the hotel industry had always worked for the big organisations. He was used to the sort of ethics, trust and behavior patterns you teach Charles. But since starting his own consultancy he has noticed it is quite possible to run a resturant, pub, or hotel, whilst behaving like a tyrant. But what is interesting is that only non-assertive people seem to work for the tyrant, And all the ideas, motivation, decisions, and control, come from the top down. So it seems using fear can work – so long as the tyrant accepts that they will have to have all the ideas, be prepared to whip their staff into action like pit-ponies, and accept that business style will limit severly how big the company will grow – probably won’t ever grow much past 50 people max. But do you know what – there are people out there who say, “Great, exactly what I want! And I get to be completely self-centred”


Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. […] competitors by building trust where they can’t. As usual, he is right on the money in Find the Fear and Swim Upstream to Trust: “Fear is the main driver of … passive aggressive, secretive, avoiding, combative, […]

  2. […] competitors by building trust where they can’t. As usual, he is right on the money in Find the Fear and Swim Upstream to Trust: “Fear is the main driver of … passive aggressive, secretive, avoiding, combative, […]

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