photo courtesy of Matthew Henry
A CEO recently expressed concern that there was an environment of fear among his employees in the workplace. He was trying to understand the underlying issues driving this, to determine how to address it. His sincerity was commendable, and it provided an opportunity to identify drivers of fear by starting at the top of the organization.
Fear can be paralyzing, creating an environment of indecision as employees try to figure out what their leaders “want” them to hear or to do, and preventing diverse perspectives that serve as possibilities for achieving organizational objectives. Employees’ internal insecurities (“Am I meeting others’ expectations of how I’m performing in my role?”), bump up against external uncertainties (“Will I become a victim of how the environment is shifting around me?”). They contemplate issues of job security, job performance, leadership changes, industry direction and business capability. While all these factors are beyond any one person’s control, the role of leadership is to build an environment of trust and avoid fertilizing seeds of fear.
Trust is built on relationships (knowing people well), transparency (understanding underlying motives), and predictability (ability to correctly anticipate behavior).
Here are several key strategies to build trust and root out sources of fear in your organization.
Check your predictability – Sure, it’s impossible to predict your organization’s future in this volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA) environment where there are so many influences beyond your control. But what you can predict is how your organization responds to them. It’s called culture, and every one of your employees knows the behaviors and values that correspond with these environmental influences. Employees should have a strong sense of knowing how the organization will react to whatever situation occurs; that employees will be treated with respect, communications will be transparent, no one will play the blame game, hard work will be appreciated, and smart work will be recognized.
Take responsibility – Leaders who don’t make any mistakes either aren’t human or aren’t trying to do anything worthwhile. So, mistakes will happen. The question is how will you handle it? Recognize and correct it quickly, admit your role in it, don’t blame or berate others, help others to learn from it and move on. If employees predict that leaders will respond irrationally or negatively to mistakes, they will take great care not to take any risks. And the few who are willing to take risks will be the “golden” ones, who know they are highly valued and can get away with a poor decision. This stifles creativity and innovation. Instead, leaders should transparently share their own mistakes and what they’ve learned from them.
Be genuine and authentic in your communications – Avoid CEO communications to employees that say one thing, while everyone knows that leaders mean and will do something else. They don’t reflect reality. Share your heart with your team; don’t just say what you think they need to hear. Acknowledge the strengths of the team, as well as the areas where it needs to grow.
Be clear and consistent on your boundaries of acceptable behavior – Employees should know that when there’s a question of improper behavior, there will be a fair investigation. Make a positive example of employees who comply with government regulations or laws, as well as company policies, ethics and morals. Don’t promote a culture of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” or tacit ignorance of such violations emanating from senior leaders where employees feel caught between the proverbial “rock and a hard place” in knowing what to do.
Acknowledge the impact of media – These days negative and incomplete media coverage of corporate issues has a tremendous impact on due process and outcomes. Companies feel compelled to make decisions based on public perception and social media outrage, which doesn’t always reflect reality. In a small percentage of cases, this may unfairly impact some individuals. A proactive stance is to ensure everyone understands the importance of making decisions that build relationships with and are in the best interests of the public, investors, clients and employees; and avoiding any behavior that one wouldn’t want to be magnified in the press.
Invest in your employees’ growth and development – Sure they may take that knowledge and go to work for your competitor, but if you engage them with challenging assignments, they may stay and contribute to your business growth. Employees’ loyalty has long since moved from a vertical relationship to their employer (30-40 years at the same company), to a horizontal relationship with their functional colleagues (networking via social media and professional organizations for the next job). They’ve seen too many friends and family members “down-sized” and therefore understand the need to build competitive skills. So demonstrating an interest in how their future success aligns with your organization’s success builds trust and strong relationships.
A climate of fear doesn’t fade quickly, but it is eroded over time by the repeated and purposeful behaviors of the leadership team. It starts at the top with ridding the c-suite of “fear” based actions and attitudes. As leaders model and reward the behaviors and values they desire, they set a clear expectation for others to follow.