Workforce Fear: Not Only a Disease, But Also the Ultimate Culture Killer

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May 14, 2014

Most of us experience fear in some form in the workplace nearly every day.

Some is completely natural due to uncertainty about raising a problem, idea, or opinion. In other cases, fear leads to tragic consequences as employees resist speaking up or “acting on what they know.”

Fear is the ultimate culture killer and was the subject of one of the most read posts on TLNT last year titled, The 8 Clear Signs of a Workplace Culture of Fear. So, how do you overcome fear and take action that will benefit your organization?

Dancing with fear

Any time I need some perspective on fear, I turn to the insights of Seth Godin. He writes often on the subject of overcoming fear. He outlined two options for dealing with fear in his book Tribes:

We can attempt to hunker down, fit in, and conform, and live in dread that the economic storm will sweep our livelihood away.

– or –

We can take control of our careers and our lives to create unique, remarkable, significant work – “art” – and be determined to change the world for the better.”

He also said you need to “dance with fear.” I recalled those words as I watched a story on a blind high-school pole vaulter named Charlotte Brown who finished 4th in the Texas state championships. She said “you look fear in the face and you just have to smile.”

Overcoming the signs of a workplace culture of fear

Let’s return to those signs of a culture of fear and focus on approaches to deal with them.

  1. Bad behavior is not visibly confronted. It’s absolutely critical to visibly confront bad behavior, highlight it’s not appropriate in a constructive way, and continue the coaching in private if necessary. It may be necessary to gain support from a peer, boss, or HR resource to deal with a situation in confidence but ignoring it only allows the problem to grow. You ideally will have documented values and expected behaviors in some form for you to refer to when behavior is in conflict with the core of your organization.
  2. Compensation, incentives and/or promotions are based on results, not results AND behavior. Whether it’s formal or informal, some form of peer or 360 feedback is useful in any organization. It may start with feedback from bosses but that only touches the surface of the feedback that’s needed to make effective decisions in these areas. Top leaders are kidding themselves if they only want to go by their opinions when making these key decisions.
  3. Explosions” are evident periodically from one or more top leaders. Explosions definitely fit in the category of “bad behavior” referenced in No. 1 above but may be more difficult to deal with due to the anger involved. The explosion is likely a symptom of much deeper stress or fear the top leader is actually experiencing. It’s of course ideal if someone can defuse the situation before it takes a severe toll on others and to circle back when the leader calms down. It may be necessary to interact with the leader or one of their trusted advisers, most leaders have them, to share how the explosions are only further adding to the deeper problems that are driving their stress and fear. It’s also setting a bad example that can spread like a cancer in their organization.
  4. Pre-meetings are the norm. If you are a leader driving these meetings, focus on providing greater clarity about your expectations and desired outcomes for any pre-meeting you would normally schedule. Confirm clear understanding of expectations and any content that must be covered. Begin testing the waters by reviewing preliminary information by email or through informal discussions instead of a full pre-meeting. If you are being continually asked for pre-meetings then proactively confirm expectations up-front regarding what the person expects to be included in the final meeting. See if the pre-meeting could be avoided with some other form of update.
  5. Communication is poor or one-way. Leaders should implement regular communication habits (meetings, webcasts, etc.). Focus on clarity of communication through obtaining feedback for improvement before (with a trusted sub-group/individual), during and after regular scheduled communication activities. Identify specific areas of communication where feedback will be proactively obtained and encouraged. Use feedback and prioritization with teams to zero in on improvements. Proactively surface drama, rumors, and concerns to drive out fear in a constructive way. I ended every communication meeting I led for nearly 10 years by specifically asking about what drama or rumors were out there that we needed to discuss. Employees feeling a lack of communication should be specific about recommended improvements and work with bosses, peers, or others to encourage implementation of consistent communication habits.
  6. Email is used to cover your rear and is not proactively used. Use email proactively to raise issues accompanied with recommended solutions or to move work forward in a constructive way. Focus on positive actions going forward versus excuses, explanations, or debate. Provide feedback when requested so people don’t assume no feedback is a sign of agreement or that issues don’t exist. Coach each other on constructive use of email.
  7. General lack of clarity and alignment about managing work. The vast majority of organizations are not clear about their purpose, values, strategies, goals, and measures. They are not disciplined about management systems to review the status of goals/priorities, regular communication habits and reward and recognition. This lack of clarity drives problems and behavior incorrectly interpreted as a lack of accountability, teamwork, ownership or other areas. Focus on building clarity as a team, even if it’s only on one top performance priority in your organization, department or other work group.
  8. Values and expected behaviors are not specifically defined and reinforced. You are only handicapping your efforts if values and expected behaviors are not defined and reinforced in your organization. The power of values is clear and they should be part of your culture foundation. Establish or refine them using employee input. Create them for your work group if your overall organization is neglecting this area.

Choose to make meaningful impact

It’s time to eradicate unconstructive fear from our organizations. If necessary, partner with at least one other person to raise ideas, provide feedback, open up lines of communication, constructively confront bad behavior, and take action.

Recognize and eliminate these signs of fears in your department or work group even if you feel you can’t influence the overall organization. If you feel you can’t make an impact in your own sphere of influence then it may be time to leave your organization, especially if there is a culture of fear.

Life is too short! Choose to “dance with fear” and make a meaningful impact.

How do you overcome fear? Share your experience about “dancing with fear” or did you choose to “hunker down” or leave?

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