What Are They Afraid Of?

I wasn’t going to write about the recent events at Penn State University (http://nyti.ms/psuscandal and http://nyti.ms/psuriots). I felt that people who are much smarter and more articulate than I am were saying and writing everything that needed to be written and said. Even if I didn’t always agree with them.

But on Monday, I changed my mind. I know that those of you who come here to read this blog have no interest in hearing my opinion about politics, sex abuse scandals, or the firing of a football coach. You come here for some insights into how to build and maintain loyal relationships and the science that shapes our human behaviors. The truth is, however, this story - as it has unfolded - exposes one of the darkest sides of our human nature. Our tendency to stand idly by and do nothing.

The facts of the Penn State case will eventually tell us who did what and when, as well as who did not. But isn’t it ironic that a debate questioning why people would not get involved to stop criminal behavior would result in thousands of students taking to the streets to watch a few of their peers shatter car windows, flip over news vans, tear down lamp posts, and throw rocks at police? In other words, not get involved to stop criminal behavior. Even though the vandals were heavily outnumbered, the potential peacekeepers stood idly by and did nothing.

It’s hard to watch, but certainly not unusual, because we see it every day. It happens on public streets and playgrounds, as often as it does in schools and churches and the office buildings where we work  Maybe without the salaciousness of a sex abuse scandal at a prominent American University involving the winningest college football coach of all-time, but make no mistake that turning a blind eye is in our blood. Or I should say, in our brain. It is our nature to avoid confrontation and not get involved.

How many of you work with a “problem” employee who no one wants to deal with? They are a cancer to the organization polluting everything they touch with their complaining, their excuses, their attitude, and their work ethic. And yet, they remain. Often moved around like furniture nobody wants.

How many of you have an incompetent boss, an unethical supervisor, or a terrible manager who you have learned to “work around” just because it’s easier that way?

How many of you have a client, a customer, a member, or a donor who costs more than they are worth and are impossible to please, yet are never evaluated or possibly “fired?”

And how often are you that person who turns away from what is wrong, believing it is someone else’s problem to deal with or hoping it (or they) will just go away?

Don’t feel bad or guilty about your answer because you aren’t alone. Courage and fearlessness have not fared too well in the evolutionary process, especially in humans. And for good reason. It’s always been a very dangerous world out there, particularly for a species without a whole lot of defense mechanisms. Not having fangs, claws, strength, speed, or a durable, protective skin, has left humans especially vulnerable to threats. So being courageous and fearless is something we learned to avoid.

Having brave genes did not serve our ancestors well. By constantly exposing themselves to dangerous situations, the brave died off quickly and became fewer in number. The cowards, on the other hand - our ancestors who were best able to run away and hide from danger - now they had a lot of success. They survived. And mated with the other cowards who were also exceptional at running and hiding and before we knew it, we had an entire planet filled with those who understood that success is more likely when you lay low or turn away instead of standing up to fight.

So here’s the point of all this. We are wired to be cowards, not heros. Certainly nothing to brag about, but it's true. Our fears are what motivate us above all else. Fear of getting hurt. Fear of losing our job. Fear of damaging our reputation (or the reputation of our organization). Fear of being held responsible, of being ostracized, of not being liked, of being alone. The list is endless. But what's important to understand is that while our fears and our resistance to risk has served us pretty well as as individuals, they get in the way when trying to build successful “communities.” They inhibit people from working together, sharing ideas, sharing responsibilities, and supporting one another because to our brain, those activities can be risky and potentially dangerous. People are so concerned with protecting themselves, that they are willing to allow their communities to fail.

The challenge for all of you looking to build strong and healthy "communities" - whether it's a business, a nonprofit, a professional association, or your own internal team - is understanding your people's fears and then creating environments where they feel supported and not so vulnerable. A culture that is safe for them to share their ideas, to try something new, to be constructively critical of anyone and anything, to be honest and forthright, to point out what they think is wrong, and to stand up for what they believe is right. All without fear of retribution, embarrassment, or isolation.

Doing that requires you to look at your procedures and your operations and all the ways you communicate, and systematically remove every opportunity for fear to exist. To make yourself more vulnerable, so that your people are not. Penn State failed in that regard, but you don't have to.

James Kane