Etienne Marais

When fear drives the decisions in your business, the real monsters will soon reveal themselves

A culture of making decisions based on fear was one of the reasons I chose to leave a career in the public sector and start my own businesses.

But I quickly realised that this behaviour is not exclusive to the public sector. Depending on the style of the leader and the culture of the organisation, any team can find themselves with this problem. And it is a problem.

I recently encountered two prime examples of this counterproductive motivation:

1. Decisions that produce short term benefit at the detriment of sustainability and integrity

I attended a trade show of sorts attended by organisations that do work on behalf of the public sector. I was on a panel speaking about the value of public engagement in designing and delivering services.

As we on the panel spoke about creating innovative ways to hear from more people, we were getting real pushback from the audience.

The questions that were posed to us invariably started with “but what if..?” or weren’t questions at all but statements of “yeah, but….”

The questions were about falling foul of “the rules” set out by “them”.

These organisations were hearing from fewer and fewer of the people they were set up to serve, as they clamped down on budgets that funded engagement in order to preserve the team. It became clear that these people were afraid of losing their jobs. They thought if they just stuck religiously to the rules and stayed out of trouble, they would maintain their level of funding and everyone on their team would remain in a job.

The people who they were meant to serve who needed them most had long since faded into the background of maintaining the organisation and its funding for the sake of its existence and the people it employed.

It’s hard to fault that way of thinking. Very few people can afford to lose their jobs. The prospect of losing one and having to try and find another can be terrifying, and very stressful.

The problem with this set up, however, is that the organisations these people work for are supposed to be serving the population. But adhering to counterproductive rules in order to keep funding means that they aren’t serving that population. They become funded organisations for the sake of existing.

The idea of innovation to become more effective within budget constraints becomes impossible in a culture of fear.

Making decisions based on fear of a possible consequence instead of based on a vision, with integrity, and to achieve courageous goals conjures up the monsters of stagnation, entropy, even failure.

2. Catering to leadership instead of challenging when they don’t know what’s best

There was a woman on the same panel as me who was from a corporate background. In a discussion about how hard it was to get the data demanded by the “powers that be” to justify funding, her response was essentially “tough, you gotta play the game”.

I had a different view. Like I said, these organisations were set up specifically to serve the public. I said if you know the best way to gather information and present it powerfully in a way that illustrates what people’s needs are and therefore how services should meet them, then make that case to those “powers”.

Change the conversation. Prove that you have a better way to demonstrate the business case for using your funding to address the real-life experiences of your ‘customers’.

I have experienced this form of fear in my career over many years. The time and resource devoted to playing a game that bears no resemblance to what is important in the day to day delivery is a tragic waste that could go towards providing the services that people want and need.

The monsters of bureaucracy, irrelevance, and waste crawl out of the woodwork at this point and grind everything meaningful to a halt.

Fear is a powerful motivator. It is often even understandable. But it isn’t inevitable. And fear of consequences can be more destructive than the consequences themselves.

Taking a calculated risk based on striving for growth and excellence and integrity is most often worth it. Rarely will those imagined consequences come to be. And if they do, what you get out of going through the process may be more than worth it.

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I write about how I became the founder of a tech startup as a non-techie, over-40 female with no entrepreneurial experience, and all I am learning along the way. You can see more here: If you think this might be helpful for others on their entrepreneurial journey, please recommend and share by clicking the heart.