In the Face of Fear | The Edge

Fear can be very real, ever-present and certainly debilitating to business. Employees, despite their apparent and productive effort, are afraid of making a mistake, afraid of demanding clients, avoid voicing their opinion for fear of conflict and are afraid to challenge their managers. How does fear hold your business back?

According to a recent survey from staffing agency Robert Half International (from blog by Jessica Stillman@EntryLevelRebel) employees are afraid at work:

  • 28% percent of respondents said their biggest fear is making a mistake
  • 18% said they are scared of difficult clients
  • 15% percent said they are afraid of conflicts with a manager
  • 13% reported being afraid of speaking in front of a group
  • Another 13% said conflicts with co-workers are their biggest fear
  • Just 3% said they have no fears

Fear, of course, can be put to productive use. Those jitters or sweaty palms before a pivotal presentation is merely fear being protective and healthy. This a much the same as that core anger energy that can be applied to a passionate pursuit. However, according to David K. Williams, writing for Forbes, in most cases fear simply depresses your team’s ability to be creative.

He writes:

“The inventive part of our mind is difficult to nurture, and we can only access it when we are relaxed.  An employee that feels supported and appreciated is more willing to devote their full energy, creativity and passion to the company and its goals, and will naturally innovate in every area within their influence. Employees who are afraid of something or someone in the organization will naturally close up to protect themselves, and can no longer perform at their full capacity.”

So what can you do to ease your team’s fear of risk taking and embolden them to think creatively?


Williams suggestion to enhance the atmosphere of fearlessness at your office, includes:

“Rely more on principles and less on policy. Let’s forget the overbearing dependence on polices to govern our steps, and learn to agree on guiding principles instead. For us, the values principles are Respect, Belief, Trust, Loyalty, Courage, Gratitude and Commitment. By following our principles instead of our policies, employees can make quick decisions that improve their own performance without manager oversight or performance appraisals. They can adapt to change on the fly. They can create their own solutions rather than worrying about the policies and procedures involved. They are no longer fearful about the possibility they will make a mistake.”

Of course, big values like “loyalty” are vague and open to interpretation according to Jessica Stillman. She says, if being loyal to a client, for example, means getting a colleague into hot water, who trumps whom? But the underlying idea, perhaps with fewer and more focused values, seems to have merit. Focus less on that laundry list of rules and procedures, you both indicate your trust in your employees and encourage them to boldly find their own way to getting to the principles you’ve agreed on; solid values of trust, commitment, integrity bound by principles of client commitment, business continuity/governance, finite resources, and ethics.

However, even clear values in isolation are open to interpretation based on other key business drivers. As organisational structure and strategy alignment support business success – with the requisite competencies to deliver on that strategy, so too does management style alignment with shared values support success. An authoritarian leadership style coerces commitment and commands control to get results. It is unlikely that an authoritarian leadership style that permeates through an organisation engenders creativity. Management by consequence hardly promotes innovation.

This is as unlikely as forcing a flower to bloom by squeezing the bulb!

A developmental leadership style, in stark contrast, is more people centred; empowering and self-actualising through the mutually agreed and achievable results produced. With power comes great responsibility and with taking responsibility (for decisions) comes more power (empowerment). It is more likely that a developmental leadership style that permeates through an organisation engenders creativity and promotes innovation.

However, fear and uncertainty go hand in hand in a cause/effect relationship. Even under developmental leadership conditions, uncertainty persists without clear direction. Uncertainty leads to hesitation and definitely less than optimal performance.  If strategic direction is set and mutually agreed results or milestones are established, then even the most difficult challenges and obstacles are tackled with confidence. Fear of the unknown becomes manageable. Appreciate that it isn’t life’s events but how one reacts to those events that determines your experience, whether they produce debilitating stress or productive action, according to David Hawkins in his book Power vs Force.

As a leader, transparency of vision, comprehensible strategy and a clear expression your expectations means employees don’t have to stress about guessing and are able to focus on their purpose with the prospect of success or even in the face of their fear of failure.

Comments on this article are absolutely welcome.

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