The Fear of Power and the Power of Fear

by Dr Rob Long on December 20, 2016

in Psychology of Safety and Risk,Robert Long,Safety Leadership

The Fear of Power and the Power of Fear

power of fearOne of the clear messages in the Netflix series House of Cards is the Fear of Power and the Power of Fear. The House of Cards series exemplifies what happens when one makes power the frame for exchange. The idea that coercion, compliance, power and fear are a pathway to motivation, learning and ownership is a nonsense. The ethics of fear and power erode trust, sabotage relationships and are the tactics of propaganda . The discourse of ‘force’ is not the language of learning (eg download Worksafe Inspectors Guide: WorkSafe_inspectors_guide_FINAL.pdf (140 downloads) ).

We see so often marketing in risk and safety with the message ‘watch out you will get caught’, a favourite for regulators and safety crusaders (education trumps punitive WHS approach ). We already know that a methodology of fear and power doesn’t work in the long term (‘Culture of fear’ not helping national road toll, says researcher ) and at best only creates short-term compliance but long term damage ( ). What is clear from the research is that fear campaigns often have the opposite effect ( Fear-based information campaigns ).

A method is the outcome of a methodology (philosophy) and the philosophy of fear/power is a dehumanizing deficit method. Fear is not a motivator but a de-motivator. Fear ‘teaches’ nothing but its covert ‘hidden curriculum’ is the building of resentment, the by-product of revenge and amplification of anxiety and confusion. Fear and power are unethical tactics for effect. Fear and power are not able to create a learning environment, diminish understanding and nullify any hope of conversation and listening. Fear and power are the perfect bed partners for zero harm. Fear and power are the perfect servants for bullying and terror (   Review of the inquiry into allegations of bullying in WorkCover NSWWorkplace regulator accused of ‘bullying culture’   ).

One of the beautiful messages of Christmas is the story of the Christ-child born in a cave out the back of a pub. With no room in the hotel, the animal shed was the place for God to demonstrate love for human kind in the form of a baby without power. Here is a setting for humility, listening and mystery. The Christmas story tells us that the power of love beats the power of fear. The strategy out front-of-house with the boozers, the noise and fights is not the same as the strategy out back-of-house where wise astrologers and sheep workers came to seek the messenger of listening, love and, empathy with all human kind.

Meanwhile back in crusader territory, the lovers of power believe that people learn best if you ‘scare the s4it out of them’. This is how they get to zero, absolute statistics obtained by absolute force. The perfection of zero is so important that any measure justifies the saving of lives. Salvation by terror, more nonsense. We see this with the popularity of ‘fear courts’ and the propagation of regulation fear and legal mythology in the risk and safety sector ( ).

It is one of the purposes of the fifth book in the series on the Social Psychology of Risk; Risky Conversations, The Law, Social Psychology and Risk, to dispel the many myths of fear and power that dominate the risk and safety industry. Watch Greg and Rob discuss the issue of fear in video number 20 in the series:

At this Christmas time and, as we approach New Year resolutions, make one of those resolutions that you might conduct your work in risk and safety without the need for fear and power. Instead, make it a New Year’s resolution to engage in Humble Enquiry, conversation and listening as your go-to method for ‘helping’ ( others develop ownership and motivation in tackling risk.

Dr Rob Long

Dr Rob Long

Expert in Social Psychology, Principal & Trainer at Human Dymensions
Dr Rob Long
PhD., MEd., MOH., BEd., BTh., Dip T., Dip Min., Cert IV TAA, MRMIA Rob is the founder of Human Dymensions and has extensive experience, qualifications and expertise across a range of sectors including government, education, corporate, industry and community sectors over 30 years. Rob has worked at all levels of the education and training sector including serving on various post graduate executive, post graduate supervision, post graduate course design and implementation programs.
  • Rob Sams

    Thanks for sharing Rob.

    I’m wondering if there may also be a link between fear, efficiency (it seems much quicker and easier to ‘terrorise’ through fear than encourage critical thinking and accept tension between thoughts) and Ellul’s idea of belief (as opposed to ‘faith’)?

    I remember Gab’s presentation on propaganda at Uni where it was highlighted that one of the keys to the ‘success’ of propaganda is that is spreads (works) much better when linked to an existing belief.

    Do you have any thoughts on this?

    • Rob Long

      Sure Rob. There are many connections between these things that act dynamically (like archetypes), like interlocking enactments (really needs a concept map, not text). In the end it isn’t about content, truth or thinking but rather an ideology/narrative that becomes an apologetic for a particular kind of social politics. This is how fundamentalism ‘works’ and cults like ‘zero harm’. The ‘promise’ is in the ‘absolute’ and the binary that is then justified as ‘logic’ and ‘reason’. Trouble is it all turns to glue when it comes back to bite you. Amazing how many people leave their workplace as senior executives (and public service) and suddenly get a conscience about life and living. Once they retire or leave it is like a transformation/conversion, so many seek a sea-change. Similarly those who can’t wait, just leave because life is too short to be crushed by a life-draining ideology. In the end people want the opposite of the cult of power, lust, propaganda, fear, bullying, individualism, mammon and greed: they want community, trust, respect, love, relationships and risk.

  • Rob Sams

    Ah yes, ‘fear’ (sadly) the foundation of much of the modern day seduction toward ‘Safety’. Such an efficient approach, it must make it easier for people to believe?

    If our aim is to truly ‘help’, does our focus need to be centred on how we encourage and support ‘understanding’, ‘unconditional positive regard’ and ‘learning’, rather than punishment and retribution?

    Thanks for sharing this Rob and encouraging an ongoing conversation.

  • Excellent article. Thanks! Also, thanks for the reminder and prod on “Humble Enquiry”. Merry Christmas and all my best for 2017!

    • Rob Long

      Thanks John. Best wishes to you for Christmas from ‘down under’.

  • Dennis

    Nice article Rob and could subject to perhaps expand on in the future.

    • Rob Long

      Thanks Dennis. Yes, much more behind this. There is no care in fear and no respect in the exercise of raw power and unfortunately safety attracts some who delight in the climate of power who otherwise would never be given such responsibility. In the end, those who delight in power hide behind the justification of ‘saving lives’ to fuel their delights in the name of care and helping. Of course it has nothing to do with care or helping but this is the frame they use to delight in terror, tyranny and power in the name of good. This is ably assisted by the language of zero harm that justifies absolutes and bullying masked by the rhetoric of ‘saving lives’.

  • Great stuff – thanks Rob! I can only imagine the fear that those in power must live under………..I wonder if it is something they try to project onto others in order to relieve some of that anxiety?

    • Rob long

      I reckon so, you also don’t need much intelligence when raw power creates the delusion of following.

      • Plenty of evidence of that recently and in history

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