Fear and the damage it causes

Every day people go to work. They turn up, they do what they feel they should do, but not always what they could do.

They follow the rules, occasionally with good results, sometimes with OK outcomes, other times with poor or even damaging results. Fear can be at the centre of this, unknowingly to us, it holds us back every day from doing things. Some recent examples of how fear manifests itself in work.

We play by the rules

We saw some United Airlines employees and O’Hare airport security following company rules last month (9 April 2017). It was an historically bad month for United Airlines and its reputation undoubtedly damaged by this incident.

We work in traditional organisations where control and hierarchy are normal

Employees across organisations make decisions based upon the traditional organisational constructs such as command and control. Just like that which the Barclays CEO, Jes Staley who, ‘honestly but mistakenly’ attempted to uncover the identity of a whistle blower. The Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) is investigating the CEO and is also looking at Barclays’ systems and controls and culture relating to whistleblowing. Mr Staley has apologised and said he’d accept any sanctions made against him.

We work in our comfort zones

Meanwhile, others work their creative ideas, but are siloed in their thinking, so they work to please, or don’t consider the wider connotations of their creation. This is what I imagine the creators of Pepsi’s ‘protest’ advert did when they developed the ad which was so off beat it caused public embarrassment for the soft drink brand.

From my external view of these organisational crises, each was created by the organisation’s own processes, people or culture. They were not external forces beyond their control, they were brought about by the attitudes, beliefs and behaviours of the people working for these companies.

Living without fear

Before the Easter break, I spent a morning listening to Traci Fenton, founder of WorldBlu share her knowledge of fear in the workplace. The event took place in the colourful offices of Happy, one of the many the WorldBlu List of Freedom-Centered Workplaces™ 2017. Yes, there really is a company called Happy and they really are a happy and healthy company, and not because they have a café inside and bright coloured furniture.

That morning, along with a select group of individuals who shared a curiosity to learn something new, understand themselves better and take that learning to their clients and businesses, I learned about fear, freedom at work and ‘The Power Question’ – What would you do if you weren’t afraid? This simple yet very effective question is one to ask yourself and others when we’re stuck and not progressing as we’d like to. During the morning, we learned about each other’s fears and how it impacts our personal and professional lives. It was an eye-opening morning.

Suppressing fear or pretending it’s not happening can be destructive, so when we ask ourselves the Power Question we unpack the fear, and realise it’s not a rational fear. It’s not about glossing over negative emotions, it’s about facing them so we understand their impact on ourselves and our work. Forced happiness or positive emotions is not the aim, but rather a human approach to work and the challenges we face, helping us to overcome the fear that’s just holding us back from doing what we could.

As part of the workshop we shared the feelings or behaviours that fear of the past or future can have upon us. We rarely face fear in the now. If you’ve been running for your life from an escaped lion you can check the ‘fear in the now’ box. Most of us experience fear in being fearful of something that could happen, or that we have learned from past outcomes.

So here is the list we compiled together:

Absent (distant, distracted) Gossiping Paralysis in decision making / action
Addiction Group think Passive aggression
Aggression Hiding Poor decision-making
Anger Humour Poor health
Anxiety Ignorance Poor quality outputs and outcomes
Apologist Inability to complete tasks Procrastination
Avoidance Indifference Protectionism
Bullying Intolerance Push
Caution Jargon to hide the facts Relationships affected
Comparison with others Jealousy Rigidity
Competition Keep to the rules Risk avoidance
Conflict Lack of focus Rush
Control Less innovative Stiffness
Destructive Low self-worth Stress
Destructive behaviours Mental health issues Territorial
Diet / exercise affected Micro-managing Tiredness
Disengaged ‘Monkey’ ‘Gremlins’ ‘Demons’ little voices, big impact Too busy…
Disappointment Nonchalance Uncertainty
Ego driven Over analysis Unrealistic expectations
Impotence Over complicating matters Victim mentality

It’s quite a list, but not exhaustive. Traci told us that in some workshops there’s been around 200 fear outcomes listed. What emotions and behaviours would you add to this list?

Putting this into a business perspective

This experience has given me a fresh perspective on my own work and my clients’ businesses, and it’s through that lens I’ve considered the three scenarios for United Airlines, Barclays and Pepsi that were in the press in April. These scenarios demonstrated control, following the rules and poor quality decision making. Perhaps brought about by underlying fears.

When you have people working in the right job for them, working without fear and working clearly towards an authentic purpose, I believe scenarios like these should not happen. People still make mistakes of course, we’re human after all. But having the freedom at work to stand up and say when you’re concerned or that you have made a mistake means we can all learn and be better at work.

Organisations with cultures of trust, where people are empowered to do what’s right in the moment rather than to rigidly follow the rules are the kinds of businesses that don’t bind themselves by their own rules. When leaders have the humility to recognise when they’ve made a mistake and have the emotional vulnerability to admit it, their employees will respect them more, be less fearful of them and the businesses will be more successful. In a community where people are actively engaged and connected to the purpose there is a greater opportunity for innovation and growth because the energy is positive and they know where they are headed.

People would question rules when following them meant it was ‘OK’ to manhandle a paying customer and they would be able to find a better way to manage the situation, such as the seating assignments as happened with United Airlines.

A leader would accept the process and validity of whistle-blowing, and deal with its findings instead of trying to find the person who made the anonymous claim.

Teams would be aware of and be able to accommodate a wide range of perceptions, not just their internal view when they are creating products, campaigns or strategies because they’d push the boundaries of comfort, listen more and be more authentic.

These recent high profile ‘PR’ disasters, have in my opinion not been made my bad communication, but by a failure of business processes and the organisational culture.

Of course, I’ve made some assumptions here about these scenarios based upon what I’ve read as I have no inside knowledge. But I do know that when people are working to rule, when they are controlled by the system or fearful of making mistakes that they don’t perform at their best. In fact their judgement is more likely to be impaired and they’ll probably make more mistakes which may be compounded by an organisational culture that shames making mistakes.

Business does not innovate by avoiding making mistakes. People don’t get better at what they do when they are afraid. In our modern working world, we need companies that are able to innovate and change to be successful, and we need to allow people who care about their work to make a difference and take the risks to make that success happen.

I work with businesses of all shapes and sizes to help them communicate clearly, reveal the human connections that matter and get meaningful results. If you would like to find out what people think and feel about your business, get in touch.

katie@littlebirdcommunication.co.uk

Image credit – CCO Pixabay

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