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Fear Factor

by Nancy Snell

What's the biggest threat to your company? Competition? Regulation? Changing technology? Maybe you should put fear on your list. Fear is a small word that somehow touches our lives in a big way. Fear of danger is a survival mechanism. Fear of the change and the unknown is a destructive force that can consume workplaces and degrade the performance of our companies. As leaders, one of our most important jobs is to ensure that fear does not take root.

The way to diminish fear in the workplace is direct and clear communication. This is often more easily said than done however. Even leaders with the best intentions wind up sending mixed messages, what experts in organizational behavior call meta messages. How so? The way in which you couch the message itself – the words you use, your manner of speaking – communicates additional, sometimes conflicting information. Whom you communicate with sends another message – and whom you exclude sends still another.

For example, Jane became VP of a small consulting team after a merger. She was well respected for her leadership and determined to make the integration as smooth as possible. She assured team members that she would meet with them and keep everyone in the loop. Soon, however, Jane was being pulled into meetings with her new boss, leaving her direct reports without a leader. She was also traveling more. She sent emails, assuring everyone that all was well and promising to get back to them later.

Jane thought she was being a good leader. She was absorbed by what she felt was the most important priority - getting the story of the new merger clear with her boss. But the mixed message of assurances to her direct reports and her unavailability proved destructive.

Within a short time, her team was disconnected from the acquisition activities. They started to talk to people throughout the company, and got more mixed messages about what was going on. Within a few months, rumors of worst-case scenarios (bad acquisition; culture conflicts) began to circulate.

As fear took hold, employees:

  • Began to distrust Jane's leadership capability
  • Turned to other leaders outside her team for advice and information
  • Created concentric circles of communication (gossiped), building mountains out of molehills

As a further consequence:

  • Performance in the team went down
  • Jane felt disappointed
  • Jane grew angry with team members whom she perceived as no longer committed to their jobs

What Jane overlooked is that our sense of security and well-being is profoundly affected by how much we are kept in the loop; in the absence of clear, consistent and regular communication from the leader, fear takes over.

Employee fear takes hold when people in positions of authority are suddenly behind closed doors, speaking in hushed tones, refusing to address rumors directly and so on.

Ironically, this attempt to avoid communication conveys a very clear message: Something is brewing that is so bad that the boss is afraid to talk about it.

That, surely, is not what the boss intended. Indeed, Jane was doing everything she could to make sure her team, her direct reports, would continue to have a key role and that the lives of her employees would not be disrupted.

The lesson: A great leader is able to put herself in someone else's shoes – to see how certain actions (or a lack of actions) look from the employee's point of view. We call this empathy. In being empathic, the leader creates a sense of calmness and control that sustains a sense of forward movement, security and direction. Unless the leader sets a clear and explicit context for this type of communication and communicates often, employees are left with little choice but to create their own "worst case scenarios".

What elevates Fear?

  • Lack of shared focus, purpose and vision. This creates confusion.
  • Lack of company-wide communication, which opens the door to paranoia (the ultimate fear response).
  • Lack of interpersonal communication causes a negative emotional response on the part of the individual. If you can't speak directly to every worker, make sure a supervisor does.

Business leaders make a mistake when they don't take into account the emotions of their staffs. Positive emotional connection isn't just something that feels good, it is good for business. Negative emotional response is destructive.

  • Lack of respect for others within the organization. That undermines security, causing resentment – another form of fear.
  • Failure to develop team agreements, strategies and decision-making policies. This increases isolation and leads to fear.
  • Negativity and complaining, which become both the cause and effect of fear.

Tips for Leaders:

When having vital conversations about the future and the organization's direction, make sure you are listening. Repeat what employees say and ask questions. Listen to the logic and the emotion (pay attention to their mixed messages!)

Pay attention to the subtext – what is implied by the questions.

Become an expert at clarifying what employees are saying before drawing conclusions and making assumptions that may be erroneous. Keep asking questions until you get to the real message that the employee is trying to convey.

Keep an open mind. Even if you disagree with what is being said, your listening shows the employee respect and helps you understand employee concerns. Remember emotions don't always reside in logic. Fear is an emotional response that you can avoid.

Evaluate information without bias.

Respond rather than react. Show the employee that his or her concerns are valid.

Accept responsibility for the impact of the way you are communicating with others.

WALK the TALK. Say what you mean and MEAN what you say. That will build trust and eliminate fear.

Understand how unspoken fear can affect your business and deal with it by unraveling meta messages. It will have an immediate bottom line payoff.

Employees who know where they stand can accept whatever reality the ups and downs of business bring to your company – and they can be OK with that.

Copyright © Nancy Snell

About the Author

Judith E. Glaser, CEO of Benchmark Communications, Inc. and author of Creating WE: Change I-Thinking to We-Thinking and Build a Healthy Thriving Organization; Platinum Press, 2005, selected as one of the best business books of 2005 and The DNA of Leadership, February 2006; 212-307-4386.

Nancy Snell, CEC, is a certified professional business coach with a broadcasting career that spanned 25+ years. She specializes in workplace issues and coaches professionals who are ready to get unblocked, unfrustrated and on track. Nancy served as a Director on the Board of the NYC – ICF in 2005. 212-517-6488

Nancy Snell and Judith Glaser are professional coaches, based in New York, offering career coaching to corporations, individuals and business owners. Do you have a leadership challenge? Do you have trouble staying organized and getting each day's tasks completed? Do you feel overwhelmed? These coaches can help. www.nancysnell.com and www.creatingwe.com.

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For help in building constructive relationships in your workplace, check out our highly practical guide, 2 Way Feedback. Visit the 2 Way Feedback information portal to find out how to download the free Introductory Chapter and start using this down to earth guide today.

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