Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 23, Issue 11;   March 15, 2023: Fear/Anxiety Bias: I

Fear/Anxiety Bias: I


When people don't feel safe enough to report the true status of the work underway in an organization, managers receive an inaccurate impression of the state of the organization. To understand this dynamic, we must understand psychological safety.
A flock of starlings acting as a swarm

A flock of starlings acting as a swarm. Swarms aren't centrally directed. Each individual bird abides by simple rules of maneuver, from which the behavior of the swarm emerges. So it is with Fear/Anxiety Bias. Each individual in the organization seeks personal safety by reporting only what he or she feels safe to report. A biased view of the state of the organization emerges from the "swarm" of individual choices. Image (cc) Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic by John Holmes courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

If we rely on reports of workplace process hindrances to enable us to focus resources to resolve obstacles effectively, we're dependent on unbiased reporting. That is, we hope that the stream of reports allows the recipients of those reports to develop an accurate representation of the threat landscape. Unbiased reporting is important because biased reporting can cause the report recipients to allocate resources sub-optimally, which leads to unnecessary costs and delays.

One source of bias in reporting hindrances is inadequate psychological safety. The dual of psychological safety, fear/anxiety, causes reporters to bias their reports — a phenomenon we might call fear/anxiety bias. For example:

Consider a project team that will imminently encounter an obstacle to progress. DeveloperOne, who is now working on implementing the project, is aware of the soon-to-be-very-serious problem, but she has elected not to report her concerns to management. This particular obstacle is one that reveals errors in an assumption that underlies the fundamental concept of the approach that was chosen for proceeding with the project. Call that approach ApproachAlpha.

The people who participated in development of ApproachAlpha include DeveloperOne. Another important contributor was ManagerTwo, who also happens to be the supervisor of DeveloperOne and several other project team members.

ManagerTwo had been a strong advocate for ApproachAlpha, while DeveloperOne harbored serious doubts about its wisdom. DeveloperOne did express those doubts, though perhaps not as strongly as she could have. Because she had recognized that ManagerTwo was inclined to favor ApproachAlpha, she felt it safest and wisest not to critique ApproachAlpha too strongly. She registered her objections, and then went along with ManagerTwo when he adopted ApproachAlpha.

We might call this scenario the "Too Mild Objection." It's an example of the effects of Fear/Anxiety Bias, and it follows the path that connects inadequate psychological safety to organizational failure. It's a path we know too well.

But there are other paths, less well known, that are just as dangerous. They're the topic of next week's post. Meanwhile, this post provides a brief review of psychological safety, which is useful for understanding these other patterns that people use to manage the risk of speaking the truth.

A brief review of psychological safety at work

A sense Although feeling psychologically safe
is essentially an individual state,
Fear/Anxiety Bias, as a phenomenon,
emerges at the group level
of psychological safety at work is the belief that the workplace is safe for interpersonal risk taking. [Edmondson 2014] [Frazier 2017] Psychological safety is the perception that the consequences of taking interpersonal risks are acceptable or even welcome. Feeling psychologically safe is essential to learning, because learning entails voluntarily accepting the consequences of potential failure. Edmondson and Lei provide a persuasive summary of the research connecting psychological safety with organizational performance. [Edmondson 2014]

When a sense of psychological safety is absent — when fear and anxiety lead us to feel that we are in a state of psychological risk — we're less likely to engage in behaviors that we feel could lead to unwelcome consequences. We're reluctant to try new things, we don't speak up about issues we recognize as obstacles, and we limit our exposure to risks generally.

Fear/Anxiety Bias is an emergent phenomenon

Although feeling psychologically safe is essentially an individual state, Fear/Anxiety Bias, as a phenomenon, emerges at the group level. That is, when managers arrive at a biased assessment of the state of the organization because of biased reporting due to fear and anxiety, no single individual is the source of the bias. The bias is emergent. Its source is the body of all reporting, rather than any single individual's report (or choice not to report).

For example, in the scenario above, the choice not to report the difficulties encountered in implementing ApproachAlpha is in each case a personal choice. But bias is the result only if all (or most) of the team members elect not to report the problem. Fear and anxiety are personal feelings; but the bias is emergent, emerging from the array of choices the team members make.

Those choices, however, are not made independently. How one team member chooses to mitigate psychological risk affects how others do. For example, if fear and anxiety are deeply rooted in the culture, the familiar adage applies: "Whoever speaks first, speaks last." That is, when one person speaks up, the others remain quiet. The quiet ones rationalize that the report of trouble has been delivered, so there is no need to take on any personal risk. When people know that this pattern is likely in place, no one dares speak first. To the question, then, "Has anyone encountered any hindrances?" the response is stony silence.

In some rare instances, people form a Cabal of Honesty, the members of which all agree to report the truth of the situation. But if management responds by "killing the messengers," one by one, most such cabals collapse quickly. And as long as social memory of the incident persists, future Cabals of Honesty are unlikely to form.

Last words

The connection between psychological safety and fear/anxiety bias is inherently difficult to measure. We can explore psychological safety by sampling individuals; to explore fear/anxiety bias we must examine group behavior. Focusing on measuring the bias alone is little help, because measuring the amount of bias would require comparing the biased reporting to some unbiased standard, which, of course, is unavailable.

What we can measure is the incidence of tactics people use to avoid the risks of speaking the truth about hindrances and obstacles. Next time, I provide a short catalog of these tactics.  Next in this series Go to top Top  Next issue: Fear/Anxiety Bias: II  Next Issue

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[Edmondson 2014]
Amy C. Edmondson and Zhike Lei. "Psychological safety: The history, renaissance, and future of an interpersonal construct." Annu. Rev. Organ. Psychol. Organ. Behav. 1:1 (2014): pp.23-43. Available here. Retrieved 20 February 2023. Back
[Frazier 2017]
M. Lance Frazier, Stav Fainshmidt, Ryan L. Klinger, Amir Pezeshkan, and Veselina Vracheva. "Psychological Safety: A Meta-Analytic Review and Extension," Management Faculty Publications 13, (2017). Available here. Retrieved 20 February 2023. Back

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