3 Ways To Fight Fear In Your Workplace

Many workers dread Sunday nights because of what they expect to encounter in the workplace. A new book, Why You Dread Work, concludes from worker interviews and academic research that there are three sources of this dread.

Author Helen Holmes — who quoted from an article I wrote about stack ranking — highlighted three reasons people dread work:

  • Fear — which flows from people feeling insecure in their jobs
  • Focus — the blizzard of workplace stimuli that make it difficult to figure out what is most important and get it done.
  • Fairness — how people feel when leadership rewards their peers who do not seem to have contributed sufficiently

While there are many things that leaders do to scare employees, stack ranking was a very popular one during the reign of the late GE CEO, Jack Welch. Stack ranking forced managers to identify and fire the bottom 10% of their direct reports each year — which was somewhat sadistically referred to as a vitality curve (with the idea that the worst performers were deadwood that needed to be cleared out).

Needless to say, stack ranking spread fear throughout the organization and created a climate where employees had little incentive to cooperate with others out of fear that someone who was skilled at promoting themselves to top management could take credit for work done by their less extroverted peers.

Based on my three favorite of Holmes’ ideas, here are three ways that leaders can fight fear in the workplace.

1. Reveal your authentic self.

Beyond anger, many leaders are afraid to reveal their emotions to their people. Needless to say, such leaders excel at scaring those who report to them. Such fear ultimately hurts the leader because it cuts off the flow of information — such as customer problems — that could make the company more successful.

The remedy for this is clear: reveal your authentic self. That means when an employee asks you how you are, reveal some true emotions. For example, as Holmes suggests, you could talk about your excitement and apprehension about a challenge facing your company or talk about something you are happy about in your personal life.

When you share your true emotions, your workers will respect you more because you are letting them know you are just another human being. That emotion can form the basis of trust and make it easier for you to learn from each other.

2. Be specific when you define a task for your people.

If you are new to the leadership role, people who report to you are likely to be particularly eager to do a good job. If you ask a staff person to “give you an update” — as Holmes wrote, there is little chance they will understand what you want. 

What’s more, your vagueness will make your staff member feel like a fool because they have no idea what you expect. And that feeling of foolishness will make them afraid to ask you for clarification. The employee might try to ask advice from a trusted peer who has given you a successful “update.”

But that might not work — especially if you are new to the organization. So when you ask an employee to do something, be very specific. This is what I do when I assign students a paper that will account for a third of their final grade. I tell them what specific topics they should cover. And I share with them an example of an excellent paper that covers the same topics on a different company.

3. Don’t attack staff who bring you a problem.

One of the most dangerous abuses of business power is to attack your people in a public forum. Often such attacks come from the leader’s inability to control their frustration with the gap between what the leader expects and what the employee says or does.

This is not to say that you should not provide constructive feedback to workers. However, a rage-tinged public attack is the worst way to go about it.

That approach publicly humiliates the worker and sends the message to all the others in the meeting that it’s dangerous to share problems facing the workers and the company’s customers and other stakeholders.

The right way to provide constructive feedback is to do so privately. You should begin by thanking the employee for sharing their truth with you and letting them know that you are glad that they care about making the company more successful. From there, you can give the employee specific reasons for your concern with their conduct and suggest ways to demonstrate that they have gotten the message.

In a world where rivals are scrambling for talent, it is more urgent that you use these approaches to replace worker fear with enthusiasm.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.

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An open minded personality.. fun to be with, because of my positive vibes. God fearing, for without God I am nothing.. Moved with compassion when dealing with you, not selfish or self-centered...

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