The F Word

Unfortunately, one of the most prevalent emotions I see in organisations is fear.

A little bit of fear is self-preserving, but I have seen it plague organisations like a vicious disease.

Often it is seen in hefty doses – much more so than compassion, care and empathy.

It may not present as terror, but it can show in more subtle, insidious versions of this same base emotion.

Here are some versions of fear in other guises:

Anxious, avoidant, cautious;

Concerned, fearful, frozen;

Insecure, intimidated, guarded;

Overwhelmed, panicked;

Stressed, tense, terrified;

Trapped, vulnerable, worried.

When fear is commonplace in a culture – when people are afraid of speaking up, challenging, giving feedback, making mistakes, failure, making a fool of themselves, losing their jobs (the list goes on) – it’s bad for everyone.

Fear is the opposite of love.

That’s what John Mackey and Rajendra Sisodia say in their book Conscious Capitalism

“Fear is the opposite of love. When we are completely grounded in love and care, fear is not present. Conscious businesses seek to eliminate fear.”

Why is it a disease?

It stymies big picture thinking, bold moves.

It’s the antithesis of creativity. Where fear lives, creativity does not.

Fear is limiting, it makes us smaller.  It is the opposite of expansive, innovative expression.

As a leader, how do you get rid of fear? 

First you have to identify it.  Here are 5 common red flags:

  1. No challenging. Do your ideas get challenged by those reporting to you? If the answer is “never” or “hardly ever”, it’s a sign to sit up and take note.
  2. People pleasing behaviour. Lots of yes’s and hardly any no’s in the common corporate repertoire. Lots of people pleasing by lots of people indicates fear.
  3. People scared to make mistakes or fail.
  4. An abundance of conservative and risk-avoiding behaviour.
  5. A lack of creative or innovative approaches.

Here are 6 things you can do to banish fear.  For a start, ask yourself, what behaviour/s could my boss demonstrate to reduce fear?

  1. Actively ask and encourage your direct reports to challenge you and speak up if they disagree.  More importantly, when they do, don’t jump down their throats, marginalise them or penalise challenging.  How do you feel about challenging your boss? What could he or she do or say that would reduce fear? See The Emperor’s Clothes post for more on this.
  2. Embody the mantra of mistakes being essential for learning, in addition to helping people to develop and grow from their mistakes. Repeated mistakes are a different kettle of fish.
  3. Encourage creative thinking and innovation. See here for tips on how to encourage creativity.
  4. If you see workplace bullying, name it and address it immediately.
  5. Have a policy which protects and encourages whistleblowing of unethical behaviour. Imagine what could have happened to Enron if this had been in place, along with less prevalence of fear.
  6. Most importantly, model expansive behaviour yourself. Show others you are willing to get into the red zone.

What other tips do you have for preventing fear in the workplace? Please leave your comments in the space provided below.

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Suzi McAlpine

Suzi McAlpine is a Leadership Development Specialist and author of the award-winning leadership blog, The Leader’s Digest. She writes and teaches about accomplished leadership, what magic emerges when it’s present, and how to ignite better leadership in individuals, teams and organisations. Suzi has been a leader and senior executive herself, working alongside CEOs and executive teams in a variety of roles. Her experience has included being a head-hunter, an executive coach, and a practice leader for a division at the world’s largest HR consulting firm. Suzi provides a range of services as a Leadership Development Specialist, including executive coaching, leadership workshops and development programmes for CEOs, leadership teams and organisations throughout New Zealand.

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