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Fear is a destructive force in the workplace. A fear-ridden workplace stifles creativity. People are averse to taking risks. Fearful team members avoid collaboration. Work teams cannot produce their best in a fearful environment.
In some organisations, employees do not feel free to voice their opinions openly. Fear is at play when we retreat from speaking to someone who does not listen or when we hold back from saying difficult things to people. Fear is present whenever we suspect hidden agendas or when we are exhorted to work long hours for no apparent reason. It shows up as job insecurity and we are anxious about being fired. Fear makes us unwilling to speak up against something wrong. Fear makes us uncomfortable with our authentic selves.
A fundamental task of management is engaging human energy and connecting it with organisational purpose. We want to work in organisations that coax the best out of us. We want passion, we want excitement about a powerful vision. We want to be enthusiastic about exciting strategic plans. We want the energy that people bring to work when they feel those emotions. These emotions are sources of energy that compel action. When people experience these emotions, things get done.
Fear destroys these possibilities.
Of course, some fears can be helpful. Fear of letting the team down. Fear of not meeting a deadline. Fear of not delivering your best work. These fears help drive us to be valued team members in organisations. What we don’t want is to work in an organisation where we are constantly threatened with firing. Or we are made to work long hours in exchange for no recognition. Or we have a boss who is angry and abusive.
Managers can and should take the lead in encouraging people to allow and own their fears. Managers need all the energy they can muster from themselves and from the people they manage.
Here are a few signs that may indicate that your workplace is operating under a cloud of fear:
- In a fear-based workplace, everyone is narrowly focused on their daily goals. The implicit message is that if you miss a target, you are out of a job. In this sort of work environment, you don’t get collaboration or innovation, because people are too busy covering their own cabbage patches.
- In a fear-based culture, managers assign work, measure results, punish infractions and maintain order. Punishment and humiliation are the way to keep people in line. In a healthy work culture, managers listen to employees, solve problems with them, celebrate successes and pave the way for even greater successes!
- Employees are afraid to tell the truth in a fear-ridden organisation. They tell their bosses what they want to hear, and not what they should hear or must hear. The bearer of truth becomes the scapegoat. People opt out of being honest and telling the truth because the consequences are dreadful. You give up your authenticity if you stay in an organisation like this.
- Gossip and rumour are rampant in a fear-based company. Issues are driven underground, and fearful speculation rules the day. You cannot stamp out rumours and gossip by forbidding employees from talking to each other. The rumour mill is more credible than official communication. In a healthy company, managers and employees bring difficult topics out into the open and talk about them. They don’t avoid them just because they are uncomfortable.
- In a fear-based company, employees are unsure whether they’ll still have a job next week. People work under a cloud of fear and suspicion. They do all they can to avoid the ranting and raving of their bosses. You can be sure that in this type of organisation, creativity disappears as everyone avoids taking risks so they can keep their jobs.
Here are some strategies for overcoming fear in the workplace and building sustainable success
- Think of yourself as a temporary steward
Nothing lasts forever. At the scale of the universe, we don’t “own” anything, least of all a job. To borrow from the art of sailing, you can either just steer the ship or you can chart the course. A steward functions as a caretaker. They make sure everyone is heard, motivated, trained, and encouraged.
- Build trust in and across the team
No organisation can overcome fear in the workplace without trust. When a team suffers from trust issues, people live in constant fear. People can’t allow themselves to feel vulnerable, so they never speak up – even when they absolutely should! People need to feel respected and understood before they can trust anyone.
- Lead with strengths, not weaknesses
Your value to the organisation lies in what you do well. But our performance management systems generally dwell on what we do not do so well. Who wants to be reminded of their biggest weaknesses and failures? Harping on a team member’s shortcomings breeds distrust and chronic fear. When team members focus on improving their own strengths during normal conditions, they’ll tap into those strengths when times get tough. Build trust by praising strengths. Reminding people of shortcomings promotes nothing but fear.
- Use positive conflict as an opportunity for growth
Most people fear conflict. Our days in the school system have conditioned us to believe that conflict is always negative and riddled with aggression. Positive conflict is vital for learning, adapting, and growing. Openly debate diverse ways of getting the work done without fearing a negative reaction. When teams don’t trust each other, conflict is always negative. Resentment builds, employees disengage, and staff turnover shoots up.
- Make sure everyone is committed to the goal
Everybody needs to know where the organisation and the team are going, how they are going to get there, and what each team member should do. Concentrate on the “pull” of purpose, rather than the “push” of punishment.
- Hold each other accountable
Think of this as positive peer pressure. Peer pressure can be positive or negative. When we surround ourselves with people who challenge us to do better and hold us accountable for our actions, we strive to meet their expectations. Holding each other accountable encourages everyone to harness the fear of letting people down and channel it into something incredible.
- Build positive feedback into how you work
It is very easy to focus on your organisation’s failures: missed sales targets, shrinking markets, and decreased demand. often these so-called failures were outside the scope of employees. Behind every “failure”, there are a dozen people who tried their best.
When people experience a positive feedback loop instead, they see the results of their labour, they feel encouraged to continue putting in the effort. Positive reinforcement pushes people to outdo themselves time and time again for the greater good. Rewarding and praising teams for a job well done and recognizing their work is critical for creating a fearless culture.
Mastering the art of management requires developing skills and learning techniques for engaging human emotions including fear and requires something more. If we employ skills and techniques to counter fear and we couple this with a compelling and energising sense of purpose and direction, your team will have the motivation, discipline, and cooperation required to meet ever more demanding organisational achievements.