The Fear Factor: What can performance management learn from other discipline’s fear research?

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The Fear Factor: What can performance management learn from other discipline’s fear research?

Shilinka Smith and Professor Deryl Northcott

AUT University
Paper prepared for the:

Interdisciplinary Perspectives On Accounting Conference

Cardiff Business School

Cardiff University

July 2012

Barbara Czarniawska (2008) contends that humiliation should be seen as an organisational by-product. Czarniawska’s argument need not be confined to humiliation. This paper argues that, like humiliation, fear is also a standard, pervasive experience. Fear has received only passing attention in the accounting and performance management literature and even less in the literature that looks at public service performance management. Indeed, when fear is addressed, the expectation seems to be that performance management systems or even merely transparent guidelines about performance expectations will reduce or remove fear (Decker and Ebersole, 2007). However, studies of fear, in other disciplines, demonstrate that the way fear operates, both personally and socially, is very complex. For example, if, as sociologists Altheide (2002), Furedi (1997) and others argue, a ‘culture of fear’, permeates, if not, dominates contemporary Western society/culture, eliminating fear from the workplace seems a myopic goal. As a result, research in trauma studies, for example, might suggest a more appropriate focus would be on how individuals and organisations ‘work through’ fear and it’s far reaching consequences (Lowenstein, 2005). This paper draws together theories, perspectives and empirical research from other disciplines to show how they provide a new avenue for management accountants to look at the consequences for fear for how performance management systems operate. Specifically, we examine sources from published research across sociology, sports research and accounting research. We also examine a small number of vignettes taken from the first author’s field note observations of New Zealand public servants discussing the implementation and maintenance of performance management systems. This field work which began in February 2012 will be completed by May 2012. This paper is, therefore, a work in progress. Nevertheless, its value lies in highlighting the differing approaches to fear in other disciplines and how they might be useful within the studies of performance management. The diverse sources used in this paper are not designed to measure the pervasiveness of fear in general or even individual’s views on fear in public sector performance management systems. Instead, based on the research completed to date, this paper has two purposes. The first is to advocate for an increased focus on fear in accounting studies of performance management in general, and public services in particular. The second is to demonstrate the benefits of using research on fear from other disciplines to enhance the theoretical base and approaches performance management research can take when examining fear in the future.

Barbara Czarniawska (2008) contends that humiliation should be seen as an organisational by-product. She convincingly advocates for more attention to be paid to humiliation, as both a social act and an emotion, because humiliation is not, as is commonly assumed, ‘an error in a modern organisation’ but rather ‘an unavoidable if regrettable effect of power’ (2008, p. 1034). Czarniawska’s argument need not be confined to humiliation. This paper argues that, like humiliation, fear is also a standard, pervasive experience. Fear has received scant attention in the accounting and performance management literature and even less in the literature that looks at public service performance management. Indeed, when fear is addressed, the expectation seems to be that performance management systems or even merely transparent guidelines about performance expectations will ‘minimise or eliminate … fear’ (Decker & Ebersole, 2007, p. 32) because it eliminates uncertainty. However, studies of fear, in other disciplines, suggest that understanding fear in society, or even in the workplace, is more complex than this. Rather than making claims that ‘performance management’ replaces ‘management-by-fear’, or ‘puts flight to fear,’ (Sulzer-Azaroff & Harshbarger, 1995), this paper argues that performance management practices need to be further explored to examine how, and when, fear operates in performance management systems. This paper is not disputing the claim put forward by Deming (2000, p. 264), as early as the 1950s, that ‘driving out fear’ has positive benefits for well-being as well as for profits. Rather, it argues that ‘driving out fear’ needs to be examined in the context of local cultures and societal fears. If, as Altheide (2002), Furedi (1997) and others sociologists have argued, a ‘culture of fear’, permeates, if not, dominates contemporary Western society/culture, eliminating it from the workplace seems a myopic goal. While the practitioner literature disproportionally associates fear with bad management (Bainbridge, 2006), this paper discusses how research from other disciplines suggests that elimination of fear might not only be impossible, but also that a more appropriate ideal for fear research might be to help individuals and organisations ‘work through’ it’s far reaching consequences (Lowenstein, 2005). This is because; whether it is researched, or not, fear is in continual, if conflicted, use (Vance and Watkins, 2012). Accordingly the focus in this paper is on how fear intersects with performance management systems. In light of this, this paper has two purposes. The first is to advocate for an increased focus on fear studies in accounting. The second is to demonstrate the benefits of learning from the research on fear in other disciplines to enhance the theoretical base and approaches accountancy research might take when examining fear in the future.
Contribution to the Literature
This paper adds the topic of fear to the growing body of research on emotions and accounting being undertaken by Boedker & Chua (2010), Norio Sawabe, Kohji Yoshikawa & Kosuma Shinohara (2010) and others. This accounting research is growing alongside more general studies of emotion and the workplace (see for example Weiss & Cropanzano (1996); Hartel, Ashkanasy & Zerbe, (2005); Ashkanasy & Cooper, (2008)). The value of research on emotion in performance management initiatives stem from the emerging field of research that argues people in organisations rarely undertake work solely based on cognitive-rational calculation (see for example, Schaffer, 2002). Rather work can be emotional, including both positive emotions such as joy and pride as well as negative emotions, such as humiliation and anger. As Weiss and Cropanzano (1996) contend, emotions about work affect feelings and behaviour. Research is also revealing that positive and negative emotions can affect people’s perception of a person and thereby impact on decisions for group inclusion and promotion (Smith, 2010). Emotional intelligence (see Salovey & Mayer, 1990; Salovey, see Brackett & Mayer, 2004 for later developments) is also emerging as an important skill in workplace employment decisions.
In this paper, we examine a wide range of sources, from published research across sociology and sports research as well accounting research. We also examine a small number of vignettes taken from field notes of public servants discussing the implementation and maintenance of performance management systems. We focus on their comments related to fear. These diverse sources are not designed to measure the pervasiveness of fear in general. They are not even designed to explore how individuals feel about their individual or organisational performance and fear. Such a broad topic cannot be exhausted within this paper, but the topic profits from this exploratory foray into the multi-disciplinary perspectives outlined here, because the breadth suggests possible future research. Therefore our paper outlines the potential diversity of ways that fear has been studied and the ways it comes up in discussions. The paper links fear research in other disciplines, with discussions in public sector organisations and with existing research from accounting.
While the fear research and many of the ideas discussed in this paper would relate to private or public sector contexts, this paper specifically focuses on drawing out implications for public sector perspectives. This is important because the modern Western nation state is predicated on the assumption that, ‘the State’ is the only entity deemed to have legitimate control of violence (for different perspectives on the modern State’s role see Green, 1986, Anderson, 2006 and Pratt, 2005, p. 257-258). The coercive powers of the modern State are granted to the State in return for protection of property and person.1 This means the State is deemed to have a significant role in reducing fear (for example, see Glassner, 1999). Performance management systems help the State collect information and evidence on its performance and, in a feedback loop, this information is then used to refine the State’s coercive powers to ensure citizen’s are safe (Boutellier, 2004). If the State, which is taken in this paper to include elected representatives and public servants, is not cognisant of the role of fear in the performance management systems that it relies on, it is not only ‘bad for business’ as the private sector would suggest, it is a moral breach of the State’s obligations to its citizens. Understanding this relationship at the micro and macro levels will be significant in exploring the consequences of fear in performance management systems. Given this macro as well as micro perspective, a new perspective this paper offers is to add the perspectives of public servants in core government departments to existing studies of public delivery agencies. Broadbent & Guthrie (2008), for example, highlight how much public sector research explores the public sector delivery agencies, such as schools and hospitals. The experiences of practitioners in government departments, that we refer to in this paper, will add a new perspective to existing public sector performance management research – a perspective that, by virtue of its closer relationship with the Executive, needs to consider the moral and social obligations of the State to taxpayers and citizens.
Overall the ideas in this paper are a starting point which will have the potential to assist accounting research to better understand the practitioner’s worldview and to explore fear in performance management in public services. In order to organise the diverse ways and places in which fear lurks, this paper uses Tudor’s (macro) sociology of fear framework (Tudor, 2003).
Analytical Framework for Structuring this Paper
Tudor argues, like many fear scholars, that ‘even the most seemingly straightforward situation of fearfulness is heavily mediated … and entangled’ within society (2003, p. 240). So, even at a micro level, which Tudor defines as ‘emotions’, fear needs to be seen in the context of its integral part in the ‘very fabric of everyday social relations’ (Tudor, 2003, p. 238). Tudor’s framework identifies ‘six analytically distinct parameters with [which]… to frame the constructions of fear. These parametrers incl: environments, cultures, social structures, bodies, personalities, and social subjects’ (Tudor, 2003, p. 247). althuogh they are analytically distinct, they are experienced as tacit, interwoven or even overtly related regardless of which category the fear initially starts in. To organise literature that looks specifically at fear and performance, I have divided micro level concerns from macro–level concerns. Tudor defines macro-levels as those that see fear as part of culture. In the first part (part A) I outline micro level studies that approach the study of fear as an emotion. This covers the categories of bodies, personalities and social subjects. In this section I will also cover the potential impact fear may be having on the implementation of performance management systems at this micro level. Part A then highlights how research using the lens of fear would complement traditional studies of public sector performance management, such as institutional perspectives (Brignall and Modell, 2000).
The following part (part B) focuses on the origin and impact of fear on macro level social structures, culture and the environment. This part considers what macro-level fear research stimulates for the study of macro-level effects on, and of, performance management systems and the context in which they are implemented. The purpose of this high-level overview of the types of research available in different disciplines and at the different levels is to stimulate new areas for accounting research. As a result, in both parts A and B I consider the types of questions that might be raised for accounting research from these existing studies of fear. To reiterate, this is not an exhaustive list, but a sample of the types of questions and ideas that other disciplines raise in fear research. This will contribute to accounting theorising and also, as Tudor argues, is ‘empirically and theoretically significant in understanding late modern society’ (2003, p. 238).
Before beginning the analysis of fear and ways of studying it; this paper discusses what is meant by performance management in this paper, starting with general performance management literature and then focusing in on public sector research. I also outline the specific requirements of government departments and public service entities in New Zealand. This provides context for the stories public servants tell when implementing or sustaining performance management systems.
Defining Performance Management and the New Zealand Context
A consensus definition of performance management is not simple. As Van Dooren, Bouchkaert & Halligan (2010) put it “performance management has accumulated many meanings”. From one perspective it is a system of identifying organisational goals and developing systems to monitor and measure progress towards those goals, with the aim of continuously improving an organisation’s performance (Thomas, 2006, p. 1). The innovation that performance management systems introduced to decision making was including systematic information about non-financial performance. As a result, Johnson & Kaplan (1987), Langfield-Smith (2008), Otley, (1999; 2008), among others, argue that performance management systems were an attempt by the accountancy discipline to regain a relevance that had been lacking from a narrow focus on financial information. A snapshot of what key scholars think are the main features of performance management, include:

  • organisational performance and not merely individual performance (Herbert, 2008);

  • performance measurement, but is wider than only measurement (Broadbent & Laughlin, 2009; Bouckaert & Halligan, 2008); and includes

  • more than a list of techniques; it also needs to take a “strategic orientation to the generation, interpretation and analysis of … information” (Langfield-Smith, 2008, p. 206).

Combining these ideas, means for this paper, that performance management is not only a way to collect information to enhance decision making but is also a value judgement about performance. It is a value judgement of both the quality of actions performed by an organisation and the quality of the achievements of the organisation (Van Dooren, Bouckaert & Halligan, 2010, p. 3-4). Integration of non-financial performance information is particularly relevant in the public sector as public taxes are paid with the expectation that government adds value to society, rather than returns a financial profit, or even a budget surplus. Nevertheless, Lapsley and Pettigrew (1994), among others, argue that these ideas are relevant to the public sector. As a result, performance management has become a key agenda often associated with the New Public Management reforms of the 1980s (Van Dooren, et al., 2010, p. 3). More recent research by Lapsley (2008) also argues that NPM is here to stay but that ‘a full blooded NPM [which includes performance measurement], crucially depends on the human frailties of the NPM managers’ (2008, p. 93). This paper is starting to examine what Lapsley has called ‘human frailties’ and will contribute to Van Helden’s (2005, p. 114) concern that accountancy research needs to be fully cognizant of ‘what is really going on in the public sector’ in order to remain relevant to public sector debates. This makes the study of performance and fear critical in contributing to Bouckaert & Halligan’s (2008:1) exploration of performance management as one of the “big questions” of public sector research. My approach focuses attention not only on the rational and behavioural components of the system (Fitzgerald, et al., 1991; Otley, 1999; Ferreira & Otley, 2009; Broadbent & Laughlin, 2009), but also on the role played by ontological security, similar to the ideas investigated from an audit perspective by Pentland (1993 and 2000) and later used to develop the theory of the Audit Society by Power (1997 and 2003).

The New Zealand Context
Under the State Sector Act 1988 and Public Finance Act 1989 New Zealand Government Ministers set strategic direction and specify outputs, and managers (under Chief Executives) determine the most effective and efficient means of implementation within broad budget accountability (Newbery & Pallot, 2004). This accountability included the production of service performance information. This model, which is one way New Public Management (NPM) (Hood, 1991) was implemented in New Zealand was criticised in the 1990s because its myopic focus on individualised, devolved accountability for outputs reduced effective cross-agency collaboration (Schick, 1996). As a result, a new system, known as Managing for Outcomes, was introduced through Cabinet mandate and later minimal changes to the Public Finance Amendment Act (2004). This system expected high level outcomes to be more prominent in coordinating and directing strategy development. It also expected outcomes as well as outputs to be measured. Outcomes are the changes in society, the environment or the economy that an agency is seeking to manage toward. There is also an expectation that a ‘performance story’ will be told that links outcomes to outputs through impacts. Impacts are the effects of the services the agency delivers that contribute to outcomes. Outputs are the detailed specification of the services (and occasionally goods) delivered by government entities (www.ssc.govt.nznz/mfo). Statements of Intent set out the three year strategic direction to manage for the outcomes and a one year Statement of (forecast) Service Performance provided the basis for the annual report. Annuals reports should also report against the achievement of the strategy and the financial information (using GAAP) (
New Zealand, when compared with other jurisdictions, is considered to be a key ‘marketiser’ (Pollitt & Bouckaert, 2004) and public servants are given some freedom to determine their outcomes framework and measurement systems. The Statement of Intent outlines the measures and targets to which an agency will be held to account. This document is produced under joint signature between the Minister, the Chief Executive and the Corporate Services General Manager or Chief Financial Officer. These measures are audited, but nevertheless, the autonomy on the part of the agency to determine its own framework and acceptable level of performance target contrasts with other systems. In other systems the Executive Government sets targets and establishes independent bodies to monitor against those targets (Bevan & Hood, 2006).
There are critiques of the quality of both the New Zealand public management system and the performance information used to generate it as a result of this relative autonomy and inconsistency of performance frameworks produced (see for example, Norman, 2003, Office of the Auditor-General (OAG), 2008,2 Scott, 2008, Gill, 2010). Recently Public Service Chief Executives funded research into the use of performance management information in New Zealand. Through large scale surveys and some case study work a recently published edited book explored the use of accounting information, especially non-financial reporting information (Gill, 2010). In addition, OAG, initially in conjunction with the State Services Commission3 and the New Zealand Treasury, has also spent the last three years implementing a work programme designed to assist agencies to improve the quality of non-financial performance information. OAG initiated this work as part of its implementation of a revised audit standard for service performance information, known as AG4 (

Given a topic of considering the potential roles for fear in performance management in the public sector, the conceptual framework within our research takes an ontological position which recognises the performative nature of reality and its construction by individuals (Butler, 1993, pp. 94-95). It is also situated within an epistemological position which crosses disciplinary boundaries and takes an interpretative approach (Bryman & Bell, 2007, p. 19). This means we do not seek to prove a causal relationship between fear and outcome achievement. Instead we consider Agar’s perspective that ‘if people define a situation as real, it will be real in its consequences’ (2010, p. 291). This perspective will inform (in part) the way we examine how officials in specific organisations discuss fear and performance management initiatives. It also considers how they talk about fear in terms of improving those systems. This will provide examples of how these systems work in practice and the emotional responses people have to them. This information can be used to generalize into an improved theory of performance management in practice because it broadens focus from cognitive-rational components of the system to the emotive dynamics of human-related systems. A traditional focus on cognitive rationality is not confined to accountancy research alone, but also dominates policy research (Bertelli & Lynn, 2004, pp. 28-29). Furthermore, Czarniawska (2008) is right to highlight how studies of power and gender are unpacking individual and also structural emotions and conditioning, but fear is yet to feature prominently in this research.

Below we outline several areas where performance management research would benefit from a more systematic and detailed consideration of fear. Using a lens of fear offers both insights into better implementation of performance management systems and also critical insights into the fundamental changes that performance management shepherds. While only some of the myriad possibilities are sketched here, this paper signals the usefulness of an overlooked area of study that will enhance the reach and impact of performance management research. Below we consider fear in two ways. First, at the micro level; fear as an emotion. Second in part B we focus on the origin and impact of fear on macro level social structures, culture and the environment.
Part A: Fear as Emotion (micro-level) and its Relationship with Performance
Studies of the social world of work have often focused on the disruptive potential of emotions in general, and business literature is no exception. Emotional Intelligence and other similar constructs have been significant in defining ‘best practice’ decision making (Coleman, 1996). As Diggins (2004, p. 33) states, ‘the best managers make decisions based on a combination of self-management and relationship skills and an awareness of how their behaviour effects others in the organisation’. A focus on the individual reduces the study of emotions in the workplace to advice to managers on fostering what are seen as positive emotions such as happiness, and reducing negative emotions such as envy (Patient, Lawrence & Maitlis, 2003). Despite this reduction, this focus is nevertheless useful for improving the quality of implementation for performance management systems. Although few articles in top accounting journals address fear as a disruptive emotion, it has received passing reference in human resource journals. A 2005 survey indicated that employees believed their companies’ performance management system did not ‘improve performance’ and ‘generated fear and intimidated employees’ (Harper & Vilkinas, 2005, p. 88). However, even this study, which asked several questions relating to fear, stress and disruption in the survey, did not report on any exploration of how this fear operates in the qualitative interviews that accompanied the survey. There are two points to be made in relation to fear being overlooked as an area of research.
The first point is that even if the results of the 2005 survey are not applicable to all performance management systems, the survey is important. It is important because it contradicts the premise that performance management systems remove arbitrary definitions of personal and organisational performance, instituting instrumental rationality as the primary decision making framework, and thereby removes fear from the workplace (Sulzer-Azaroff & Harshbarger, 1995). As a result, this survey finding suggests that fear can play a role in undermining rather than strengthening performance if not managed properly. For performance management systems to work as intended, more research is needed into how fear operates in specific organisational contexts. For example, Braescu (in press) through in-depth interviews with social workers in the UK and Romania discusses how social workers manage fear. The social workers in the UK discussed two kinds of fear. The first was fear of physical attack while on site visits. This was similar to the fears of social workers in Romania. In addition, those in the UK discussed fear of the ‘the system’ (and here the social workers referred to the incentives and consequences of their agencies performance management system in conjunction with the perceived political need to ‘blame’). Further research might focus on both the individual staff member’s management of fear and also how the organisation as a whole manages the system and any fear it generates.
The second point in relation to overlooking fear as a subject of research is that the questions in the 2005 survey were only focused on intimidation and disruption, which is only one aspect of fear. Fear can also have a positive motivational effect. That is, the fear that prevents a child from touching a hot stove is life preserving and thereby positive. Disciplines outside business studies have considered these positive (as well as negative) aspects of fear. Fear is recognised as a motivator of action in sports research and to a lesser extent educational research (see for example, Conroy, Coatsworth & Kaye, 2007). This means it is not fear itself that impedes performance, but the level of fear.
Research shows that it is only extreme fear that is identified as having a potentially negative impact on performance (on and off the sports field) (see for example Elliot & McGregor, 2001). Sports literature considers two types of fear. The first is fear of success; the second is fear of failure. Both forms of research consider the relationship between the sense of identity, or sense of self, in the individual and how the individual mediates that sense of self in the face of externally defined success and failure. In essence, if fear of either failure or success is extreme then the individual is likely to remove themselves from the situation or even sabotage outcomes. This is because the individual seeks to avoid being in a potential position to confirm a discrepancy between their self identity and the identity they believe others will ascribe to them, when they fail or succeed (Elliot & McGregor, 2001). Whatever the cause of extreme fear of success or failure, performance management systems that make such success or failure so transparent, run the risk of igniting performance anxiety and hence actions of sabotage in the same way that such fear triggers destructive behaviour in athletes. The transparency of the performance management system is, in theory, supposed to reduce fear. However, in practice, like a public sports event, which puts the individual’s identity on display for judgement, transparency in a performance management system may stimulate fear. Performance management systems are designed to reveal human and policy errors, for correctional purposes, but while people are held accountable for both their own errors and errors in knowledge that underlie policy implementation, extreme and hence disabling fear is possible. Existence of these types of fear opens the research agenda to the multiple ways in which fear might be effecting the implementation of performance management systems. There is excellent accounting literature that focuses on the reasons organisations adopt accounting innovations (such as performance management). Fear, as a factor, however, has not featured in these studies (see for example, Lapsley and Wright, 2004). Exploration of the role of fear in the social subjectivities of individuals and their organisational cultures may reveal new insights into how to keep the positive aspects of transparency but also mitigate the accompanying implications of judgement. Such research will add complexity into potential reasons that performance management implementation is derailed after an apparently successful launch and embedding process.
The types of research outlined above takes a perspective on what Tudor calls the parameter of the social subject. This includes the social subject’s identity and the role fear plays in shaping that identity in the workplace. One vignette of a New Zealand public sector manager’s view on putting performance (through performance information) on display was: “It’s scary at first, but then the more you do it, the more you realise that information can really help you make your case”. For this manager, she felt ‘evidence’ which often meant quantitative measures, was the key to gaining trust. The trust she expected to gain from the evidence would give her agency more freedom to do what she thought it did well.
Further studies in this area would be useful for improving implementation. Two possibilities for future accounting research will be sketched here. First, is to research the practices currently being used to mitigate and manage fear within organisations and by organisations or governments. One place to look for fear might be in the different elements of performance management that different jurisdictions make visible. For example, in New Zealand the Performance Improvement Framework is used to judge agency performance ( This framework has two sections – one on the results the agency achieves (in relation to government specified priorities) and a second section on the agency’s capability. In the UK, however, the equivalent programme, the Capability Reviews, only focuses on the capability of the government agencies as their marker of performance ( This effectively mitigates any risk of revealing a discrepancy between government’s aims and public service achievements. Nevertheless, as Lapsley (2008) predicts, for long term public servants, many of these initiatives, seem like déjà vu. This was the case in New Zealand. One senior adviser, stated “first it was risk management, then it was Statements of Intent, now it’s the Performance Improvement Framework – if you use any tool to both improve an organisation as well as hold it to account, you turn it into the ‘fear factor’, it [the tool] can’t do both”.
Returning to Tudor’s framework - this highlights that these social subjectivities, personalities and bodily responses to fear, do not function in a vacuum. They shape and are shaped by macro level concerns (part B). I now turn to the macro-perspectives influencing the individual’s identity and perception of self in terms of success and failure.

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