Conversational Intelligence

Build trust; get results

The Alchemy of Success

Getting in front of the curve.

Human beings thrive on connection. And when the connection enables them to speak up, share their thoughts and feelings, and believe they can trust you to support them—not judge them—individuals and organizations thrive. The formula is so simple yet often hard to practice.

When we connect in positive, trusting, and supportive ways—our brains and hearts open up and the conversations that evolve from that moment of contact activate a neurochemical alchemy for success in organizations.

Yet many leaders, without intending to, are activating an alchemy of fear. Does fear live in your organization? How you manage fear in the workplace determines the levels of productivity and success that your organization and teams achieve. As a leader, you can shape the experiences people have at work by reducing fear and inner focus, by creating cultures that facilitate enhanced sensitivity, mutual support, vital communication, and engagement in the strategy.

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Alchemy of Conversations

Are your people afraid of you? I’m not asking if they’re scared of you because you are a bully. (You aren’t, are you?) Nor am I talking about the fear that comes from worrying about being punished for a well-thought-out plan or product launch that fails. Plenty of literature exists on how you can help your employees do their jobs better.

I am talking about something more visceral: anxiety caused by the concern that something drastically harmful—such as a layoff, firing, pay cut, or demotion—will happen. Everyone is fragile at the core. We all worry that tomorrow will be our last day. Fear impedes people from doing their best work.

The Alchemy of Fear is profound. A confusing comment from a boss, a strange glance from a colleague can cause our brains to lock down. When fear strikes us—our hardwired instinct to protect ourselves activates in less than .07 seconds and with little thought we instinctively know to either pull back from the source, to freeze, or to fight. When we live in fear, we withdraw, build our own story of reality, imagine others are out to get us, and react accordingly.

Neuroscientists are revealing—through the use of fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) that fear is hardwired in our lower brain—often called the Reptilian Brain. When fear, terror, anxiety, distress alert us to harm our brain produces a neurotransmitter called cortisol, activating our well-honed protective instincts. Angelika Dimoka, Ph.D. a Neuroscientist at Temple University Fox School of Business, along with a team of other researchers made a groundbreaking discovery—that is both fear and distrust live in our lower brain. When fear activates, so activates distrust.

Case in Point…

A technology company I’m working with is growing rapidly. Sales have tripled in two years and now top $1 billion. The chief financial officer, who came from a large company in anticipation of this kind of growth, brought with him his “big company” mindset.

One of the first things he told his staff was: “Go out and hire your replacement.” He thought his message was clear: “I want you to hire someone capable of filling your shoes because with all this growth—and how wonderful you all are—I anticipate promoting each of you.”

His staff heard: “Hire your replacement because none of you are good enough and you all will be fired soon.” Not surprisingly, his employees grew anxious. Morale and performance suffered. When I explained to the CFO what his people had heard, he instantly understood what he had done.

He called a meeting to explain that he wanted his people to go out and search for their own replacements as part of planning for the future and to make it easier for him to promote them when the time was right. Putting this context around the statement was not only less frightening, it made people feel good about themselves and the company—and more secure about their role in the growth process. Not surprisingly, fear receded and performance improved.

How can you, as a leader, eliminate fear? Here are four ways…

  1. Be present. Your people spend inordinate time watching everything you do. If you are almost always behind closed doors, don’t seem to be listening during conversations, spend a lot of time reminiscing about the way things used to be, or talk about a future that seems unconnected to the present, people are going to read things into your actions and words and make stuff up. Typically, what they imagine won’t be positive. To make yourself present in the eyes of your reports, you need to make yourself open to others by being tuned into your relationship environment. You may need to have a talk you didn’t plan on having with a staffer. Or get sidetracked by needy employees who distract you from grand thoughts. Welcome to life in the big city. Business is about people. It’s about how we handle our relationships with others.
  2. Tell people where they stand. As leaders, we resist doing this because we fear it will lead to broken relationships, feelings of rejection, and messes we can’t fix. So we don’t raise certain issues. Yet people need to know where they stand so they can do something about it. Once they know, they often discover their imagined fears were much worse than reality. Provide context in every communication.
  3. A picture with a frame becomes a different picture. Context can make things that are bad seem right—or at least far less worrisome. As the CFO realized, just focusing on the action “replace yourselves” without setting the context “so we can work on succession planning together and you can be promoted” caused unimaginable fright that rippled throughout his team.
  4. Use honesty at all times. No one likes to tell the truth when it will hurt someone or make that person look bad. So we fudge. As adults, we should know better. Often we don’t. When the truth surfaces, the impact is twice as bad as it would have been without the fibs. At all times, tell the truth—tactfully and within the appropriate context. Context, in this case, does not mean spin. Don’t make a situation sound better than it is, even if you can. As a leader, you can have no greater resource than a high-performing team. If you are honest, you’ll admit there are times—maybe far too often— when the people who work for you are not producing their best work. Check to see if fear is one reason.

Moment of Contact

In a recent article in The New York Times called, “What Drives Success,” the authors Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld identify that success contains three elements: Confidence, Insecurity and Control. Mastering the balance between confidence and insecurity is the key. Insecurity triggers fear and distrust networks—confidence triggers our trust networks. Understanding how to sustain and retain our "self and other-trust" is the line that distinguishes success from failure.

Knowing this fine line, as a leader, gives you the power to transform the alchemy of fear into the alchemy of success in your organization. Fear touches almost every aspect of our lives. We are sensitive human beings, and "success and failure" are invisibly woven into the fabric of our interactions with others, and sets into motion a chain of neurochemical reactions that powerfully affect the way we think, how we engage, and how we communicate.

As a 21st century leader, you have the power to transform a moment of fear, into a trajectory of success. Leaders who create safe spaces for conversation and set the context by using candid and caring communication, anchor their teams in the higher brain where trust, integrity, strategic thinking empathy and good judgment live—the time is now, and the choice is yours!

Judith E. Glaser, the author of seven books including her recent best seller Conversational Intelligence, is a founding member of the Harvard Coaching Institute.
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