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Don’t Let Fear Take Over at Work

There is a survival instinct in each of us. When you sense danger, your body reacts. You either fight to protect yourself, or you take flight to get away from the threat. This behavior is a handy instinct to have if you are facing a life or death situations, but adds a degree of difficulty to circumstances where your body interprets discomfort as a mortal danger.

For instance, a person who reacts instinctively with a fight response may be hostile or aggressive when presented with a condition that causes discomfort. A person who uses flight as a form of protection against perceived danger might avoid situations or lie to get out of a tricky scenario. This fear reaction reduces an individual’s ability to recognize that discomfort does not equal danger. With this model for behavior, a project manager might spend more time managing fear instead of managing projects.

That said, there is some evidence that fear does have some value in the workplace, even if it just serves as a red flag. Sigal Barsage, a Wharton management professor, suggests that fear is a good indicator that something needs to be fixed. In a fear-driven environment, team members become rigid, less creative, and cannot see the broader picture of the project because they are focused on protecting themselves. When these behaviors are present, it’s a good indicator that fear is a part of the project culture.

A change of mindset can change this environment, and it’s not that hard to improve engagement, diversity, and innovation if you are intentional about it. One way to reduce fear is to assess individuals and situations as neither good nor bad. People and circumstances are different, not necessarily right or wrong. When you shift to understanding this, you do not tie behaviors and situations to the value of a person. Stop the cycle of fear and reaction by embracing other ways of viewing the world.

In a recent article from Atlassian, CMO Robert Chatwani discusses the role of a leader as it relates to the ability to create an environment where each person can reach their full value. He has found that when he listens and learns about the people in a company, he can better understand the different thoughts and activities of individual employees. In this way, he is better able to see the value of unique work styles. This discussion is also valid for Millennials. Millennials, in some ways, have a different way of thinking. It is not good or bad or wrong or right. It is a different view based on a changing world.

You can still set boundaries and have expectations for how employees work, but the narrative of no good or bad, or wrong or right addresses the situation, instead of the value of the person. For example, instead of saying Bob is lazy, which keeps people talking about how Bob is at his job, you would focus on the work that needs to be completed. This attitude supports an environment where the focus stays on the work, not on the person. Fear is reduced because the personal value is not the focus of the work.

Trust is also built on the reduction of fear. Work environments that build trust reduce the fight or flight instinct. Trust is not always easy to define, but when you encounter it in the workplace, you see the difference in the way people work. One everyday activity that builds trust is making sure that words and actions match for brand, employees, and leaders. If the company brand says excellent customer service and the customer service is sub-par, trust diminishes. If a bar posts on social media that they have crappy beer and hot pizza, then trust grows if this motto is true to what you get. This type of authenticity also applies to the work of you resources or team members. If your told a project will be done at a specific time and actions support this commitment, you begin to trust in the team. This behavior also holds for leadership. If leaders make a commitment to employees and then do not follow through or communicate a change, trust breaks because of the fracture between what is said and what is done. The more fractures to the word and action connection, the more significant loss of trust. The more consistent the tie remains between words and actions, the higher the trust will be. Even a boss that expects long hours and hard work from an employee will be trusted if his or her actions portray the words communicated.

An excellent example of this association is the story about a newly formed Northwestern Mutual Insurance. In 1859, an ox and a passenger train collided just outside Johnson Creek, Wisconsin. Two of their policyholders were killed in the wreck. The claims totaled $3,500, which was $1,500 more than the then two-year-old company had on hand. President Samuel S. Daggett and his fellow trustees personally borrowed the money to settle the claims. By keeping the connection between words and actions, they were able to build trust to help their company succeed.

Understanding the role of fear in work will help you to manage any project better. Less fear helps to create a more cohesive team that values the individual while still addressing the issue. If creativity and cohesion are qualities that you want to build into your project, think about the role that fear plays in your management style.


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Written by Dr. Lynette Reed

Writer, researcher and advisor on human potential for personal and organizational development, Dr. Lynette Reed has mentored people from in businesses, not-for-profits, schools, allied health agencies, chambers of commerce, government and churches. She has taught courses on team building, leadership, ethics, world religion and world cultures. Her current literary contributions include an executive summary paperback titled, Fixing the Problem: Making Changes in How You Deal with Challenges, as well as book contributions, articles, guest radio appearances and a series of children’s books with Abingdon Press. She is also a co-founder and board member of the Institute for Soul-Centered Leadership at Seton Cove. Lynette holds a Doctor of Ministry in Spirituality, Sustainability, and Inter-Religious Dialogue and a Master of Science in Communication Sciences and Disorders. Contact her at expectations2reality@icloud.com.

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