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.
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…
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!