The Fear Factor: Do You Speak Up or Shut Up?What would you do if you weren’t afraid?

Overcoming fear has been a major theme in our work. Fear is appealing food for moose in the workplace. It attracts and nourishes them. Moose-on-the-Table is where everyone in a meeting knows there is an issue or problem, but no one is talking about it. It’s like there is a large moose standing on the meeting-room table and no one is saying a word about it as if it’s not there. The longer the moose is ignored, the bigger it grows. Then other moose attracted to the conspiracy of silence — the perfect habitat for these moose to thrive, join it. And they start to have babies. Pretty soon moose are everywhere as everyone does their best to ignore them.

In my only book of fiction, Moose on the Table, I centered the story on Pete Leonard, a manager “going along to get along.” Many of the book’s examples and scenarios come from our coaching, consulting, and workshop experiences. Here’s a scene from a workshop Pete attended:

“What keeps us from having courageous conversations?” Jason (workshop facilitator) asked.

“Fear,” replied a participant at the table just in front of Pete’s.

“I agree,” Jason said. “Take a few minutes at your table to discuss what sort of fear holds you back from talking about issues you know you need to address.”

Everyone at Pete’s table looked at each other without speaking. Finally, an older man across the table from Pete said, “As I look back on my career, one of my biggest regrets is that I talked about the moose out in the hallway or with a few colleagues in our offices after the meeting. But I didn’t have the courage to raise the issue in the meeting when it really needed to be discussed. I guess I excused myself by rationalizing that I didn’t want to rock the boat and jeopardize my job or promotion.”

The man, feeling the support of the group, continued. “The financial pressure of raising kids, mortgages, and pursuing an ever higher lifestyle put me on a path that reduced my options and slowly silenced me into just going along. I didn’t think that I could afford to speak up and live according to my true values.”

He paused to gather his thoughts. “I see now that it’s far too easy to let our courage ebb as the tide of responsibility rises. I lost my passion and settled for the status quo. So, I ended up sedating my youthful ideals with booze, pills, and busyness.”

Whoa! This guy is pretty pathetic, Pete thought. Life is about compromise. That’s why it’s better to keep your expectations low so you won’t end up full of regrets like this gloomy old chap.

A couple of others at the table commented that he was being far too hard on himself.

“That might be true,” the man said, “but with few working years left there isn’t a lot of time to develop the courage and approaches it takes to start acting like a leader. Now is the time to start changing the next five years. I am determined to finish my career by speaking up and speaking out.”

Jason asked the group how people were punished for naming the moose in their organizations. Many participants were keen to share their experiences and perspectives. Responses included being suddenly excluded; branded as not a team player; anger or irritation from the boss or peers; put-downs — often disguised as humor; reassignment to less-important roles or projects; not being promoted or taken off the fast track; even being fired or “downsized.”

Is your workplace infused with fear or courage? Are you helping to reduce or increase the moose? What would you do if you weren’t afraid?

Quiz: Do You Have a Moose Problem?

Next Week: Thoughts That Make You Go Hmmm on… Fear