Fear can cause even the best of leaders to stop in their tracks and cower from making risky decisions. However, it is fearless business leaders that are the most productive. Dr. Laurie K. Cure is the author of Leading Without Fear: The Fine Line Between Fear and Accountability, a book that helps businesspeople conquer their workplace fears. These fears can often include job security, failure and, for some, a fear of success. Cure talks to us about how people can overcome these fears to become more productive.
1. How does fear influence productivity?
Research shows that productivity (as well as innovation and creativity) declines in fear based environments. It’s hard to be efficient and effective when fear is looming over your head. Theory tells us that fear results from high levels of uncertainty in the situations we experience and also requires a great deal of attention and effort to manage. This alone takes energy from productivity as we spend time “worrying” about whatever threat is generating the fear.
When employees are in a state of fear (or threat) they become paralyzed and their performance suffers as a result. One of the greatest opportunities for managers to improve productivity and efficiency is by reducing their personal fears and those of their employees. The minute you take attention from fear and place it on problem solving, customer care, strategy or other priorities you have increased productivity.
Fear also manifests in our bodies. We have a tightening in our throats, and stomach. We experience loss of appetite. Stress which can lead to high blood pressure and other illnesses. All impacting not only productivity but financial health.
2. How can managers foster a positive work environment, empower employees to work with less fear and thereby promote efficiency?
Communication and feedback is the main piece of advice. Fear is exacerbated by the unknown so the more we as leaders can put people minds at ease the better. This might be easing their mind about job loss or helping them understand their performance strengths. Transparent discussion based in trust will diminish fear naturally. If your employees are performing well, tell them so. Don’t just provide feedback when it is negative. By offering frequent communication, you prevent employees from letting the stories in their heads run away from them. These stories are what creates fear; whether they are accurate or not.
I also recommend that leaders and peers avoid the “language of fear”; doing or saying things that increase anxiety for others. This might be as simple as using a condescending tone to more aggressive acts of intimidation.
3. What single idea would you remove, insert or alter in the minds of the masses?
Stop ignoring the impact of fear on your employees. If you truly value your people and you desire a financially viable business, you will have an awareness of when fear is surfacing and develop strategies to address it.
4. What fears do people have in the workplace? How do managers and coworkers unwittingly contribute to these fears?
The deepest fear people experience around work has to do with security. Will I have a job and income? Does it pay what I need to support myself and my family? Am I safe in my work? These represent foundational fears that when left unmet, prevent us from succeeding in our roles. Fears in these areas also lead to turnover as employees seek more stability and assurance. Organizations contribute to these fears in many ways. I am working with a company now who is undergoing a process of “consolidation”. It has been going on now for 3 years and many employees have taken control of their own destiny and left for fear that their job might be eliminated. This fear and turnover is costing the company far more than it will save through other efforts. Had they involved employees, maybe looked at ways to reduce their workforce through attrition or other means, they would have prevented a mass exodus that will actually cost them more in customer sales and recruitment of new staff.
While security fears are the most prevalent, ego and self-esteem fears are the most common. These have to do with whether I think I am doing a good job. Am I capable of performing what I am asked to do? Will I fail or succeed? Do others see me as strong? These are perhaps the greater fears impacting productivity. If I am worried about whether I am doing something right, I might needlessly review it a dozen times, or ask others to assist me unnecessarily. If I delegate a major project, but I am concerned about it being done correctly, I will not “let it go”. If I have an employee who I want to promote, but they don’t feel they have the right experience, I lose out on growing an excellent staff member and creating a strong succession plan.
5. What team-building activities can small businesses do on an ongoing basis to keep fear at bay?
I usually recommend that teams incorporate appreciative inquiry and recognition into their regular staff meetings. This provides an opportunity to explore what is going well and reassure others about their performance. In terms of team building, using personality assessments can also be helpful as a method of helping team members to better understand one another. If John, for example, is more direct with her communication than Ryan, understanding that can ease fear. Ryan might not take it as personally when John criticizes an idea if he knows more about his style.