Organizations have nothing to fear but fear itself

If you trust your employees, they will trust you


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I was recently asked what I see most often in organizations these days. Without hesitation, I answered, “Fear.”

In all my years of consulting, I have never witnessed so much anxiety and trepidation, even in organizations that have assured their employees that they won’t be downsizing. Though the economic situation is improving, we are living in an uncertain world. Fear has increased and – even if unwarranted – it spills into the workplace.

Fear is the perception, thought or assumption that an external threat to one’s well-being exists. And it’s not just scary information that feeds it. A lack of communication can have even more dramatic ramifications because fantasies are often worse than reality.

Fear robs people of their potential and is a barrier to high performance, while also threatening their loyalty and spirit, both of which are necessary to compete in the marketplace.

Those organizations that manage potential fear successfully experience lower turnover, lower absenteeism, fewer filed grievances and better communication and increased production. Employees spend less time defending against real and perceived threats and more time on improving processes, engaging in innovation and performing at high levels.

Avoidance results from an atmosphere where employees are reluctant to bring up problems with those who can remedy the situation for fear of retribution and retaliation.

A hierarchical structure, where communication is primarily top-down, may result in a tremendous loss of information for people at all levels. Organizations that foster an environment where management is elitist, distant, mistrustful, capricious or secretive and fails to explain decisions have serious trust issues.

Environments where respect is not expected exacerbate fear.

Policies that are not explained, lack equity and sensitivity or have a double standard of application encourage suspicion.

Fear increases in an environment where it’s not OK to question management practices, and there is a perception that management doesn’t care.

There is a reluctance to speak up when there is the feeling that verbal employees will be labeled as troublemakers and agitators.

Open environment

But when dialogue is present, fear is more likely to be absent. Here’s what an organization’s leaders can do:

 • Practice being more emotionally expressive: Reveal what you feel, value and care about, and express your desire to know others in the same way.

 • Make it comfortable to acknowledge mistakes: Leaders can model the benefits by doing the same.

 • Acknowledge the diversity of people, opinions, skills and experience by making explicit that diversity contributes to the organization’s success.

 • Be extremely visible and have many one-to-one conversations with people: Walk around, hang out and show up.

 • Clarify the ultimate purpose or goal of any discussion and why the input of all participants is central to a successful outcome.

 • Acknowledge each individual’s unique skills, experience, and perspective, not just to yourself, but publicly.

 • Make the ground rules for communication explicit, and gently remind people when they’re not following them. Those at the top should also acknowledge when they fall short.

• Do not get into a “don’t tell the kids” mentality. Share information even when there’s nothing to share. There are way too many secrets in the workplace.

If you trust your employees, they will trust you. Fear is bred from uncertainty and uncertainty results from being kept in the dark. Create an environment in which information is openly shared, discussed and understood. It will allow employees to ask questions, to give and receive feedback and to share concerns.

Finally, if you really want to make progress, take the leap and create a blame-free and gossip-free environment.

Blame-free is based on the notion that it doesn’t matter who is to blame. What matters is what’s not working gets fixed.

You may ask if that makes employees less accountable. I’m happy to report that it makes them more accountable. They’re much more willing to admit mistakes if the environment isn’t punitive.

Gossip-free means that we talk to people and not about people. If folks need to vent, that’s fine, but the listener should respond, “How can I help you figure out how to talk to him or her?”

Gerri King, Ph.D., is a founding partner of Human Dynamics Associates Inc., Concord, and the author of “The Duh! Book of Management and Supervision: Dispelling Common Leadership Myths.”

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