The most successful companies typically hoard smart and talented people. They understand how valuable these people are to lasting success. To remain the industry leader in any business you need smart and talented people to support growth initiatives, product development, and to provide the innovative thinking necessary to ensure that your business stays a step ahead of the competition within the marketplace. Seems like a very basic and obvious concept. Of course, you want to build your business with the best people possible, right?

Surprisingly what is often seen within many companies is a fear of the smart and talented. We have all witnessed this contradiction of logic throughout our careers, haven’t we? Whether it’s that dynamic leader who didn’t get the promotion they were more than qualified for. The head of IT who always had the right solutions the company needed to run smoothly, but was allowed to walk right out the door for another opportunity. Or the outside applicant with the abundance of relevant experience who may have brought a fresh perspective to the company, but was discarded during the recruiting and interview process. These examples, among many others, unfortunately can be found far too frequently at many businesses.

The main driver which causes businesses to smother, exit, or avoid onboarding smart and talented people is fear. But why does the fear of talent exist and where does it come from? The fear is rooted in the company culture, one that makes key players in the company’s structure lack confidence in their job security. People who make decisions based on an emotion that they have (in this case fear) tend to make illogical choices, as opposed to those people who make decisions based on producing the best possible outcome.

The breakdown in a sound culture always stems from the top, the heads of the company. That can be an owner, CEO, or the C-Suite altogether. Typically the fear of smart and talented at this level is a result of stubbornness or even a bit of narcissism. “We run this company my way…” or “The way we have done things in the past got us where we are today…”. This approach creates a culture that does not welcome new ideas or innovation of any kind. These individuals at the top of a company’s hierarchy are not going to make efforts to recruit, promote, or retain smart and talented individuals who may challenge the status quo.

Tier 2 leadership or middle management can also be fearful of the smart and talented because of a poor company culture fueled by the C-Suite or ownership. If you’re a VP who performs well day-to-day, but the company’s culture is one that disproportionately focuses on your deficiencies rather than your accomplishments, you are inherently going to feel a lack of security in your job. Again that disproportionate focus on the negative comes as a result of fear from the company heads. The fear created by this culture will cause that VP to make poor decisions. Maybe that VP doesn’t promote that smart and talented up-and-comer, someone that may later be a threat to their job. That VP probably doesn’t fight to retain that smart and talented person who was offered another opportunity elsewhere.

The last caveat to this problem of fear diminishing the overall strength of a company is the empowerment of underqualified people. Someone does need to fill these roles and someone does need to be promoted along the way. In company cultures that fear ‘smart and talented’ the people who tend to climb the ranks in the business are those that are just qualified ‘enough’, but ultimately are in a role they aren’t yet ready for. People in these roles aren’t viewed as a threat to job security or as a possible disruption to the old guard. Individuals in positions that are above their qualifications are easier to control because there is a ‘lucky to be here’ dynamic to their position in the company. These people are less likely to question process, challenge authority, and suggest alternative methods to what are viewed as the tried and true processes of the company.

This is how smart and talented people are weeded out of a business, and those companies are weaker for it. It happens slowly but compounds over time. Rarely is this a conscious approach by the company, but rather a byproduct of a toxic environment. The question is, is this your business? As the leader of a company, there is a responsibility you have to create a company culture that allows the employees to feel safe (And no this doesn’t mean that people can consistently underperform or conduct themselves unprofessionally without consequence). But a high-performing employee who feels safe will step out of their comfort zone and grow in the process. An employee who feels safe will make sound decisions that are in the best interest of the company’s common goal, not in the interest of self-preservation. A safe work environment inspires collaboration, support of others, and allows the truly smart and talented to thrive.

All business leaders should routinely self-assess their contributions to the company culture, good or bad. Leaders at the top should be highly cognizant of what type of culture the company has. When a key employee who has shown to be smart and talented seems to have plateaued or ends up leaving for another opportunity, company leaders should be alarmed and not take these events for granted. Spend the time necessary to understand what happened. You may come to find that there are some gatekeepers and key personnel who are operating in fear, and in turn eroding the business. Even worse, if you’re honest with yourself, you might come to find that you may be part of the problem. Either way, a toxic work environment is never good for business, and it’s the responsibility of the leadership at the top of an organization to ensure that fear is not fueling the daily decisions that are made within the company.