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Are you working in a fear based environment? Break free.


Have you ever experienced project team members padding estimates or suppressing information to prevent unwanted attention, while they work through the issue or try making up time?  Most project managers have experienced this resistance to divulge key project information because no one wants to draw attention to themselves in a fear based environment.

Fear based cultures and environments thrive off of those individuals who are in constant self-protection mode.  Fear based environments are often developed from management because fear at the individual level allows management to have control over their organization and the individuals working within it.  This environment and type of culture is extremely destructive and actually hinders long-term successes for any individual and organization.

As project managers, we mitigate risk and manage issues on a daily basis.  We find ourselves on the hunt for what might turn our project red, and once the red status is surfaced and solidified, we can expect some form of panicked reaction within the organization, based on those impacted and the various associated consequences.  This fear based panic and reaction is most often associated with some level of self-individualized fear, which varies across individuals and within organizations.  These self-individualized fears contribute to organizational panic when things go wrong and this is a perfect recipe for the fear based environment to thrive.

Project managers are most often known as the face of project(s) and tend to feel the heat with any slips, even if planned and communicated through the appropriate channels. Project managers tend to keep eyes glued on the prize of getting to project closure on time and on budget.  If expectations and project goals are not met, there are consequences to face.  High expectations from management combined with pressure for the project team to achieve success without failure, is further intensified if everyone is working in fear – resulting often in failed expectations because the underlying factors for success were fear driven.

There are many indicators that will tell you if you are managing in a fear based environment.  Here is a list of obvious signs and contributing environmental factors:

  • The name of the project game is blame and no one wants to be held accountable; however, when things are good, there are those who are always eager to personally benefit on any accomplishment(s)
  • Demands are made instead of asks
  • Bullying or conflict is seen inside and across teams
  • Information (i.e. project status, estimates, etc.) is often altered to get the desired results of what management wants to see
  • Problems are at the forefront of every discussion instead of solutions
  • Criticism is found in everything

History tends to repeat itself and in a fear based environment this is a very repetitive and vicious cycle.  As a project manager, you are more than just a person who controls and provides status on project variables.  Project managers can also set the project cadence and contribute to the overall "feeling" of how a project is perceived by the project team members.  The project team might work in a fear based environment and it might be a good motivating factor short term (get it done or else – and that's not ok), but that doesn't mean that everyone should live in fear.  Live in fear and you hinder your abilities to achieve success.  Break free from that fear based environment and a world of opportunity and success surfaces. 

At the individual level, fear is identifiable by those who are constantly padding estimates, manipulating data, hiding problems, ignoring risk, and keeping their head down to not draw attention.  This protective behavior is unnecessary and needs to be discouraged.  When fear is removed, individuals will tend to accept challenges, freely contribute, and inspire management because the new cultural "feeling" is one of motivation, creativity, openness, all of which are success driven.

So as a project manager, how do you encourage a healthy non-fear based environment for your project team and set this overall "feeling" in a fear-based environment?  There are many ways you can go about encouraging project team members and removing this fear, but there are some key elements that are advised to achieve these successes.  As project managers, it is also our job to have the difficult conversations with management about direct project and team impacts of living in such an environment – view yourself as the project success advocate.  After all, this negative, fear based environment has a direct impact to the success of a project.

Here's the silver lining as they say - ways to get past the fear and motivate your project team:

  1. Perspective Shift: Failure isn't always bad – it helps us grow as individuals, we know what not to do the next time around and we keep trying until we succeed.   Accept the fact that failure may introduce itself here and there, but if you learn from it, you are already on your path to success.
  2. Encourage: Encourage and push for greatness and greatness will come. 
  3. Positive Thinking: Individuals can choose to see a path of failure or a path of success.
  4. Trust: A team has to trust their project manager – the team should see a project manager as their biggest advocate throughout the project, regardless of what happens.  Lose this trust and failure follows.
  5. Open Communication: As more trust is gained from the team, they will be willing to bring forward key project information that will keep the project on a path of success.
  6. Collaborative Solutions, Not Problems: Encourage the team to bring problems to the table with solutions, not just problems.  Solutions move a team forward.
  7. Stop Worrying: Worrying will only slow down success.  If you cannot control it, it is not worth worrying over – only worry about what is within your control.
  8. Persistence: Encourage individuals to work hard, never give up (keep trying!), and accept the fact that failures will arise – success is always around the corner.
  9. Praise: Give praise where praise is due.  Praise motivates, encourages, and often inspires others to achieve.
  10. Emotional Environment Shift: Don't underestimate the power of individual passion, destiny, and desires – they can be big drivers on the road to success.

This is not a promise of hitting the easy button and poof, you have a perfect recipe for team and project success.  Change is difficult, especially change that requires a cultural or environmental shift.  Just remember that as a project manager, you have the power to control how your projects are managed and the power to encourage your team to work fear free.  Remember to never be discouraged or it will rub off on others – continue to look forward regardless of how small the strides are on the path of change.  Now, stop living in fear and start living in the light of success.  Break free.

"Let no feeling of discouragement prey upon you, and in the end you are sure to succeed."

Abraham Lincoln


About The Author

Senior Project Manager

Kelley is a senior Project Manager in Cardinal's Tampa office and is passionate about her pursuit to continuously deliver successful projects.