Are your people afraid? I’m not asking if they’re scared of you because you are a bully or bad boss. 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. I’m talking about something more visceral: anxiety or angst caused by the concern that something drastically harmful—such as a layoff, firing, pay cut, or demotion—will happen.
Everyone is somewhat fragile at the core. We secretly worry that tomorrow may be our last day. Uncertainty and volatility induce fear, and fear impedes people from feeling good and doing their best work. Fear impacts our sense of identity and causes us to doubt our ability to achieve our greatest aspirations with others. Our biggest fear is the fear of failure in the eyes of others; failure to be perceived as capable, valuable, powerful, smart, and poised to handle the challenges your organization is facing.
When we perceive the world through a lens of fear, we turn away from others when we are coming from protective behaviors, rather than turning to others for help. Our egos drive us to develop habit patterns of protection. Over time, we incorporate defensive behavior patterns into our daily rituals and routines.
When we perceive the world through a lens of fear we:
- Move against others (fight)
- Move away from others – (flight – avoid - freeze)
- Move with others (give up/give in)
Conversational Intelligence (C-IQ) at Work
Fear is a common but counterproductive response to uncertainty. When fear dominates, the creative brain shuts down. Here is how it works….
C-IQ Neuro-Tip: When fear dominates, the primitive brain takes over, releasing cortisol and catecholamines—hormones released during emotional or physical stress. These chemicals shut down the brain’s prefrontal cortex, or executive functions, which enable sophisticated strategies, trust, integrity, and strategic thinking. Instead of responding intelligently and creatively to people and situations, you freeze, coming across as unintelligent or defensive. Appreciation and Trust, on the other hand, minimize the impact of cortisol, and enables oxytocin, the bonding hormone, to flood the brain – elevating our ability to have a voice and partner for mutual success.
Level III Conversations
When we perceive the world through a lens of trust, we are open to connect, to listen; to share and discover and to engage in trusting behaviors – we develop patterns of partnering with others. We are able to learn to speak what is on our minds and be strengthened through the conversations – we are generative, growing and co-creating with others. I call this Level III Conversations.
When we are living in Level I, we are focused more on ‘telling’ people what is on our minds; when we are living in Level II we are focused more on ‘selling’ people on what we believe; yet when we are living in Level III we are open to learn, to engage in co-creating behaviors with others, and open to influence. We put our egos aside and focus on creating win/win situations with others. We adapt, we are agile, we are open to positive influence, and we are willing to change our minds. Most of all, we minimize judgment and maximize appreciation, helping others to bring their ‘best selves’ to work every day.
When we are living in Level III Conversations, we perceive the world through a lens of trust and we are open to share what is on our minds and to discover what is on other’s minds; we have courage to step forward and speak our voice, and we work with others to speak their voice. We partner, collaborate and co-create for mutual success.
So how can you, as a leader, eliminate fear and enable your employees to develop their identity as ‘leaders in their own right’:
- Be present. Your people spend an inordinate amount of time watching everything you do. If you’re almost always behind closed doors, don’t seem to listen during conversations, spend a lot of time reminiscing about the way things used to be, or talk about a future that seems disconnected to the present, people will read things into your actions and words; and typically, what they imagine isn’t positive.
ACTION: To make yourself present, you need to open yourself up to others by tuning into your relationships before working on tasks. You may need to have a talk you didn’t plan on with a staffer or colleague. You may need to handle a project that went off schedule because an employee’s confusion distracted you from your grand thoughts. Welcome to life in the big city. Business is about people. It’s about how we handle our relationships with others.
- Provide context in every communication. A picture with a frame becomes a different picture. Without background, fear can be elevated by confusion and uncertainty. A technology company I’m working with is growing rapidly. Sales have tripled in two years and now top $1 billion. The CFO, in anticipation of this growth, told his staff: “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.
ACTION: 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 what role they would play in the growth process. Not surprisingly, fear receded and performance improved. Context can make things that are bad seem right—or at least far less worrisome.
- 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 far worse than reality. When we live in fear, we withdraw, build our own story of reality, imagine others are out to get us, and react accordingly. We stop turning to others for help and stop taking feedback and advice from others.
ACTION: Set up time with people to calibrate on what they are doing and how. This doesn’t mean telling them what they are doing ‘wrong.’ This means providing them with quality calibration to see how to move forward with success. This means guiding them forward to develop their ability to experiment, and take new steps to achieve a goal. This makes people feel good about themselves and more secure about their role within the company. Not surprisingly, fear recedes and performance levels improve when we tell people where they stand. They move from feeling judged to feeling appreciated.
- Use honesty at all times. No one likes to tell the truth when it hurts someone or makes that person look bad. So we fudge. As adults, we should know better. Often we don’t. When the truth finally 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.
Action: As a leader, you 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. Then be willing to have the courage to address the concerns with open, honest, non-judgmental conversations – that are shaped by the intention to move forward and support the person’s success. When you speak with candor and caring you minimize the impact of fear and maximize the impact of trust.
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, and then step into Level III Conversations with others. This shift will move you from living in transactions to driving transformation for mutual success.