Fear. Uncertainty. Doubt. The triple forces of FUD can unleash emotional turmoil that leads us to make poor decisions, hampers our productivity, and wrecks our health.

Fear is contagious. It jumps from person to person and spreads like wildfire throughout departments and entire organizations.

FUD busters are brave leaders who set out to reduce fear, uncertainty, and doubt at work.

There is only one thing that makes a dream impossible to achieve: the fear of failure. —Paulo Coelho

The True Costs of Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt

In a culture of fear, people will not speak their minds. Nor will they take risks. When confronted with the FUD factor, most people cling to their familiar habits and beliefs, however misguided they may be.

The dangers of a fear culture were uncovered by the Rogers Commission investigation of the space shuttle Challenger disaster in 1986. The lack of open and honest communication at NASA had disastrous consequences. Commission member Richard Feynman found that reliability estimates offered by NASA management were wildly unrealistic, differing as much as a thousand times from the estimates of NASA engineers. Feynman asked NASA engineers what the likelihood of engine failure was. Their answer: 1 in 200-300. Then he asked NASA managers the same question. Their answer: 1 in 100,000.

How could the estimates be so different? Either the engineers were not talking to the managers, the managers were not listening, or both!

FUD Busters

There’s an often-told story about founder and former CEO of IBM, Thomas Watson, Sr. After an associate bungled a major project costing the firm millions of dollars, Watson called the manager into his office and asked, “Do you know why you are here?”  The manager replied, “Well, I guess you are going to sack me.” “Nonsense,” Watson said, “I’ve just spent a million dollars on your education—now get out there and do it right next time!”

What does it take to transform a culture of fear into a culture of innovation? The first step is to loosen the stranglehold of the status quo. To do so, leaders need to make use of a powerful culture-changing behavior—how they react to mistakes.

This one leadership behavior has a major influence on whether or not people perceive the environment to be safe, reliable, and fair. A mistake is not the same thing as a failure. At least, not if we learn from it. We all know the saying, “no risk, no reward.” But in many organizations, it is expected that marvelous innovations will somehow materialize without any major bumps along the way.

What’s a Leader to Do?

Communicate the positive. Communicating that we are all standing on a “burning platform” is not enough to provoke positive culture change. John Kotter, who propagated the idea of a burning platform, admits that positive factors play a greater role in motivating change in the long run. Communicate what stands to be gained by action, not what will be lost by inaction.

Reward good decision making. Someone who achieves a positive outcome by taking enormous risks is lucky, not skilled. We may admire their courage but we should not ignore the cost—next time their risk-taking may lead to disaster. Rather than judging the outcome of people’s decisions, judge the quality of their decision-making. Outcomes are often based on factors beyond a person’s control; their process for decision making is not.

Promote learning and teamwork. Evaluate a project by measuring what people have learned in addition to the project results. Did they develop their (collective) capabilities? Are they a stronger team? Did they expand their network? Will they be able to solve more challenging problems in the future?

Be trustworthy and fair. Remember the marshmallow experiment? When leaders are perceived as unreliable, people are less likely to show self-control. In contrast, when leaders build trust in their team, they predispose others to sacrifice their short-term self-interest in favor of long-term team rewards.


Gino, F. (2013). Sidetracked: why our decisions get derailed, and how we can stick to the plan. Boston: Harvard Business Review Press.

Taleb, N. N. (2004). Fooled by randomness: the hidden role of chance in life and in the markets. New York: Random House.

Image courtesy of nophun201 / CC BY-SA 2.0