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Is Fear Running Your Office?

Is fear an unwelcome guest in your shop? New employees like a young IT professional I spoke with the other day are usually an organization’s most reliable fear hounds. They can detect fear-based behaviors to which company veterans may have become numb or impervious. The up and coming technology whiz never used the word fear, but the concerns he voiced signaled the classic behaviors of fear-driven work environments.

Needless to say, after less than a year he has his sights on taking his talents elsewhere. Psychologists tell us that left unmanaged, fear almost always leads to these kind of negative results. It gnaws away at morale, creativity and the potential for growth. The good news is: Leaders can reduce fear levels in their organizations and departments through a combination of effective management and communication techniques.

The less than good news: When fear has become a stronghold in a shop, it may become tricky to recognize it for what it actually is. A growing body of literature over the last decade on the topic is helping provide insight into fearful behavior and its negative impact in the workplace. Here are five warning signs that this unwelcomed visitor may need to be shown the door in your department or organization.

  • Zero sum competition. People in intensely competitive organizational cultures fueled by fear tend to focus more on reducing or eliminating threats rather than on working to achieve desired outcomes. (Bloomberg Business Week) They are also more likely to spend time on calculating ways to avoid reprisals, maybe even at the expense of others. People spend more time covering their derrieres than actual problem solving and innovating. In small shops, this dynamic can be deadly as authentic teamwork becomes impossible. Individuals vying against each other in the win-lose game purely for the sake of competition have difficulty getting real work done.

  • Preoccupation with appearances. Once upon a time, I had a new boss whose first executive announcement to employees was that late hours at the office would not be the pathway to impressing him. He stopped a runaway fear train in its tracks. With the organizational changes underway, the habit of some people staying late had kicked up several notches, further escalating tensions and suspicion in an atmosphere of uncertainty. When people are more preoccupied with arriving at the office before the boss and staying after the boss has left than they are on the quality and timely completion of their work that is a sure sign fear needs to be derailed.

  • Status is everything. A close cousin of appearance- is-everything is status- is -everything. When the focus of office conversation is on individual employee’s political clout and capital -- that is, whose real estate is rising and whose is dropping within the organization --- it’s a safe bet that the mission of the organization and stakeholders’ interests have taken a backseat to egos and me-first behaviors. A quick word here is in order regarding ego. Many people confuse ego with confidence. One of the best definitions I’ve seen that differentiates the two is: Confidence is offering potential solutions to a problem while ego is dismissing anyone else’s potential solution because it is not your own.

  • Distrust reigns. Remember our young rising IT professional? He observed that people at his new job were verbally encouraged to contribute their ideas, but they did not feel comfortable doing so because they did not get credit. Or, if it was an idea that didn’t pan out, they were bad-mouthed – often behind their backs. Unfortunately, this incongruence is not uncommon. Environments in which people steal one another’s intellectual capital or their contributions are turned into the daggers they must pull from their backs are places where trust is definitely subordinate to fear. In healthy shops, people are comfortable not only sharing ideas but also pushing back on the idea thieves and dagger throwers.

  • Metrics dictate. Sensible performance goals with clear measures help people understand priorities and what’s expected of them. But when metrics, rather than the actual development of people, become an obsession, you have entered the fear zone. Strong, healthy organizations build performance goals into its leadership framework. Metrics are a component of the framework, not the framework. Fear and anxiety is reduced when management views and treats people as valuable, multifaceted contributors and producers, and use metrics as one element in a vast array of tools to help improve performance and hold people accountable.

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