Does fear prevent learning in the flow of work?

Posted by Julie Hiipakka and Jeff Mike on May 15, 2019.

We recently attended Deloitte’s 2019 Chief Learning Officer Forum, where a number of learning leaders discussed the idea of feeling “safe” and its impact on workers. One participant made a great point: the very people we rely on to implement change in our organizations—middle managers—often experience heavy financial burdens due to aging parents, children’s college tuition, and/or debts carried over from past mortgages or higher education. A need for financial safety, he posited, might prevent the very experimentation and agility we want from our workers. Their need for job security could override any desire to take risks, innovate, or experiment in the flow of work.1 (A recent Deloitte survey found that financial topics like job security, retirement, and debt are among top employee stressors. Our colleague Pete DeBellis wrote on how to address this via a rewards strategy.)2

The suggestion that fear may limit performance and prevent learning in the flow of work came back to us at Deloitte’s 2019 IMPACT conference in the two sessions that bookended the event.

We unveiled this year’s Deloitte Global Human Capital Trends at the first session on Tuesday. In her presentation of the trends, Erica Volini, Deloitte’s US Human Capital leader, noted that organizations wanting to succeed as social enterprises must consider and meet the needs their workers have at all five levels of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs3

Source: Deloitte Consulting LLP, 2019.

(If your psychology is rusty, here’s the gist of Maslow: once the lower-level needs for safety, shelter, and security are met, humans search for meaning—represented at the top of the hierarchy as self-actualization.)

Work goes a long way toward providing those lower-level needs. Having an income gives workers a sense of physical security because it allows them to put food on the table, clothing on their kids’ backs, and a roof over their families’ heads—and maybe even contribute toward retirement. We all know that when we don’t feel physically safe, it’s impossible to focus on anything else. Once their safety is secure (no pun intended), workers are then free to focus on the higher-level needs of belonging and esteem. These needs are important to helping workers unlock and connect with the meaning in their work—a component of work that is crucial for improving the human experience.

Neel Doshi wrapped up this year’s IMPACT conference with his talk on Total Motivation, as described in his book Primed to Perform: How to Build the Highest Performing Cultures Through the Science of Total Motivation.4 Doshi discussed the impact that fear and self-actualization have on work. Negative emotions, fear of punishment, and habit can reduce performance in work. On the other hand, valuing the outcome of work, participating in work that leads to something you believe in, and doing work you just plain enjoy are powerful motivators. In other words, surfacing these internal motivators and creating space for them to flourish at work brings the best of each person to the job and promotes greater productivity, satisfaction, and wellness.

Following these events, we reflected on the significant pressures workers experience: financial, pace, volatile work environments (and even work), uncertainty, feeling overwhelmed—to name a few. Only 38 percent of respondents to this year’s Human Capital Trends survey thought they had sufficient autonomy to make decisions at all.5 These pressures could be attributed to several situations. Work is becoming increasingly fluid and complex due to environments that are team based, matrixed, and virtual. Many leaders and organizations are sending strong messages against risk-taking via everything from highly detailed standard operating procedures to the frequently unexplained and sudden disappearance of colleagues. As a result, many workers respond by not taking action at all.

Given all this, it became even more apparent to us that for people to be able to learn in the flow of work, organizations need to address the cultural, financial, and social conditions that might inhibit where the real learning takes place.

Organizations can begin by clarifying roles, rules, and responsibilities and communicating them transparently. Then, organizations can work with leaders to identify and address mixed or negative messages about empowerment, innovation, agility, and risk. Once leaders have a better understanding of this, they can modify language and practices. This includes being clear about the difference between innovation in service of growth, stretch assignments where workers are “safe” to try something they haven’t done before, and the areas in which leaders have made mistakes. We’ve found that high-performing organizations are twice as likely to encourage measured risk-taking and use mistakes as data for improving work.6 Finally, organizations can encourage workers to ask questions—even the tough ones.

All these actions align to what we describe in the Human Capital Trends as moving from employee experience to human experience. An open culture with supportive management creates an environment in which there is space for meaningful work, growth, and shared trust between leaders and workers.

We’re interested in hearing from organizations about how they’re working to create cultures that support innovation, risk-taking, and learning from mistakes. If you have a story to share about how you’re making it safe for your workers to learn in the flow of work, please contact Julie Hiipakka (

Julie Hiipakka is a vice president and the learning research leader at Bersin™, Deloitte Consulting LLP.

Jeff Mike, EdD, is vice president and head of research ideation at BersinTM, Deloitte Consulting LLP.

1 “Proof that Positive Work Cultures Are More Productive,” Harvard Business Review / Emma Seppälä and Kim Cameron, December 1, 2015,
2 Surveying Employee Preferences for Rewards: Finding Life Stressors, Bersin, Deloitte Consulting LLP / Pete DeBellis and JoiAnda Bruce, 2019.
3 “A Theory of Human Motivation,” Classics in the History of Psychology / A.H. Maslow,
4 Primed to Perform: How to Build the Highest Performing Cultures Through the Science of Total Motivation, Neil Doshi and Lindsay McGregor / Harper Collins (India), 2015.
5 2019 Deloitte Global Human Capital Trends: Leading the social enterprise—Reinvent with a human focus, Deloitte Consulting LLP and Deloitte Insights, 2019,
6 High-Impact Learning Organization Maturity Model: An Introduction, Bersin, Deloitte Consulting LLP / Dani Johnson, 2017.

Leave a Reply