Trick or Treat?: Fear and Anxiety in the 2014 Workplace

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Is fear subtly infused in your organization’s culture?   Jim Finkelstein, along with Sheila Repeta and Molly Gauss, share how organizations can identify and overcome the lethal culture killers: employee fear and anxiety. 

Many of us distinctly remember an event that has profoundly impacted our lives. We woke up so unassuming, and by the end of the day, the light-hearted walks we had been taking had us looking over our shoulders, thinking twice about our safety.

In the late 2000’s many high performing and culturally stable organizations succumbed to the pressure of the “Great Recession” and took necessary and/or preventative measures to weather the financial apocalypse unraveling before them. Oftentimes this meant operating lean through budget cutbacks, minimal staffing, layoffs, etc. And just like that, a sudden crisis leveled many stable cultures bringing them to their knees through two simple emotions – fear and anxiety. Employees who survived the fiscal firestorm were happy to find themselves still employed in the workplace but found themselves looking over their shoulders wondering what could be coming. The once stable, strong culture eroded with this infusion of fear.

We know the data. Most of the workforce is not and has never been fully engaged. And why are they disenchanted? Or better yet why can’t we engage them? Maybe it is because we constantly talk about culling the herd, shedding the skin and other descriptive terms for downsizing, rightsizing, outsourcing, resourcing. All have the same effect. They send shudders through a workforce.

Is fear subtly infused in your organization’s culture? Huffington Post blogger David Peck shares five signs of workplace fear and stress that are often overlooked. Included in this list are:

• Only hearing good news from your employees
• Employees not challenging one another
• Having employees who are “yes men” (or women) in the workplace

And now our economy still wrestles with the “R” word – recovery. What happened in a narrow window of time to instill the fear into organizational cultures is taking years to recover from.

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Be the Change – Creating a Culture Free of Fear

As organizations face increased competition for market share and brand recognition, we often look to develop the “secret sauce” – culture. And nothing undermines culture faster than fear.

Fear potentially creeps in when employees try something new, worry about failure, experience conflict with coworkers, have ideas rejected, or even when they are just feeling stuck. As important as it is to have operations running as effectively and efficiently as possible, we also must have employees working in a culture free of fear.
Before we can work on creating a fear-free culture, we must understand the types of fear.

Fear of the Future

Fearful questions arise in the workplace. Will my performance meet my supervisor’s expectations or will I get a poor performance review and lose my job? Will my new colleagues like me, and will our team work well together, or will there be mistrust and dislike? Will I get the raise that I need to pay my rent increase?

All of these concerns are focused on the future and what may or may not happen. A manager who is overly controlling and micro-managing is likely driven by the unknown – that things will go exactly as he/she plans. This fear of the unknown typically leads to a culture of distrust.

Fear in the Past

Have you ever worked with someone who can’t let go of what happened a year ago? I have, and it affected our team’s culture because we kept re-living what didn’t go right rather than focus on learning from our mistakes.  This mentality drains energy and weakens a team’s innovation and excitement. Many fears are rooted in prior negative experiences. It is essential to let go and move on.  (For more on learning from your mistakes read an excerpt of “Fail Fast, Fail Often: How Losing Can Help You Win” by Ryan Babineaux, PhD., and John Krumboltz, PhD in the Daily Beast.)

Fear in the Present Moment

Fear in the present moment is called panic – that sudden and unreasoned fear in the face of real or perceived danger. In order to be an effective leader and get through times of “panic”, we need to move our attention to whatever situation we are faced with right now. When we go beyond the top 1%, 2% or 5% of the population, this is the place from which many people operate.

Fear of the Incomprehensible

There are other fears that the average person can’t even comprehend. The first is the fear of being homeless – and yes, this happened during the last housing crisis with employees living in their cars or on the street, and without the knowledge of their co-workers. This is a fear that is paralyzing and embarrassing. The second is a fear of being dependent on others – particularly for Boomers who have entered “Act 3” and fear being a burden on their children; and for children who can’t find work and need to move back in with Mom and Dad.

Once we recognize the types of fear, it’s time to identify how organizations can overcome the lethal culture killer. If you think that fear is still permeating your culture, there are some things you can do to address it.

6 ways that organizations can overcome fear in the workplace and create a fear-free culture:

1. Confront conflict with others face-to-face. Many times, we are afraid to have critical conversations because we are scared or uncomfortable. Conflict resolution is key for organizations to move forward. We must be able work through issues effectively and in a mature way instead of being scared. This is one way we are able to grow.

2. Promote self-awareness and emotional intelligence. Be a role model for self-awareness and encourage employees to reflect on their fears and how they might impact behaviors. Once examined, fears are less likely to impact behavior.

3. Overcome resistance to change. The only thing constant in life is change. It is inevitable that things are not going to stay the same. Organizations and the people in them need to adapt quickly to new situations. We must let go of expectations about what we think should happen and shift our mindsets to see the good in all new opportunities.

4. Promote a positive mindset. Organizations need to recognize the good that employees do. Inspiration and enthusiasm is contagious and can help individuals reach their greatest potential.

5. Be transparent. Organizations should be open and honest with all employees to avoid ambiguity. Fear is less likely to occur when organizations share with everyone what is going on and create a space for open dialogue and communication. Studies have shown that when employees do not know the answer to a question – “Is there another round of layoffs?” “Will we be relocating headquarters to a more affordable location?” – they will fill it in with the worst-case scenario. Giving employees access to as much information as possible as early as possible will help to mitigate fear as it will promote trust and openness If you don’t know, say so. There are often times leaders do not know the answers to the questions employees have. To save face, leaders often avoid the topic entirely. To openly admit, “I do not know” goes a long way in building trust with employees.

6. Dialogue. We must take time to acknowledge, recognize and voice our fears. It is helpful to gain perspective from other people. This will help re-frame our fear from a different viewpoint and realize our fear may not be as scary as it seems. If a leader finds his/her staff stuck in “yes” mode out of fear, it is critical to create opportunities for staff to talk openly about what is going well and what needs to be done better. Host “plus/delta” meetings where employees discuss the opportunities to change processes, procedures and policies that will make the workplace more efficient. Create safe spaces for employees to debate and discuss options and opportunities that are out there.

future sense 2It is no trick to be employed and stay that way these days… and it is not a treat. We must be proactive and think about what our organizations can do to create a fear-free culture. These tips will help organizations create the environment where the possibilities of growth and development will be endless.

Jim Finkelstein can be reached at jim@futuresense.com

This article is reprinted with permission from the October issue of PSX: The Exchange for People Strategy, an eMagazine that brings you cutting edge views and perspectives on all things related to people strategy.


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