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Conquering Fear and Workplace Retaliation

Let's take a step back and focus on the fear that triggers retaliation—the fear the causes leaders at all levels, from direct supervisory personnel to senior managers, to take action against an employee who raises a concern.

April 2, 2012

From the subject line, you might expect I'd be writing about how fear drives employees to remain silent even as they see hazards and potential catastrophes grow like weeds around them.

Yes, the fear of retribution is alive in many organizations and the harm it causes is already well recognized. That's why we have an expanding maze of laws and regulations intended to protect complainants and penalize individuals and organizations who would stifle or ignore their concerns.

But for a change, let's take a step back and focus on the fear that triggers retaliation—the fear the causes leaders at all levels, from direct supervisory personnel to senior managers, to take action against an employee who raises a concern. Only by getting rid of that kind of fear can you create a workplace where serious issues can be brought forward and dealt with.

Picture this: You're swamped with details and deadlines, dealing with pressures you couldn't have imagined a few years ago—a tougher economy, less staff support, more competition. You're besieged with emails, voice mails and texts. You hardly have time to respond to everything being thrown at you, much less step back, plan, and think.

Then an employee comes into your office or sends you an email about "something serious." You'd rather be working on everything else already in your tightly planned schedule, but you're brought up short by what you read or hear:

  • Our processes are flawed …
  • There's a problem that could lead to a huge mess …
  • Someone needs to look into a practice that could be unsafe of illegal …
  • I think it's a mistake that we are/aren't …

The thought that grows in your mind is that you, the leader, are doing something wrong, or that the team, led by you, is making a mistake. Or there's something taking place, under your watch, that could be a big problem and you are going to be blamed. Then the employee asks, "How are you going to handle this now that you know about it?"

You think quickly of all the reasons why the complaint can't be true, why it shouldn't be believed, and why the issue is a personal assault or intrusion. You are swept up in those reactions before you can rationally think about whether the employee is making a constructive attempt to address what could be a more serious problem.

What's happening? In many cases, your adrenaline surge is setting off your instinctual, "fight or flight" defenses. You grimace; your posture stiffens; your tone of voice changes.

Combat will seem the easiest and proper choice. After all, leaders act and lead; they don't retreat, especially when personal survival may be at stake. The outcome can be and often is inappropriate and potentially illegal.

This human reaction is a main reason why assuming that retaliation can be avoided simply by teaching leaders about legalities is both unrealistic and inadequate. As I've previously written, there are too many statutes and regulations to learn and remember.

And knowledge alone cannot conquer the fear that causes us to respond at an instinctive, defensive level, nor can it guarantee we will act in a way that demonstrates we welcomerather than fear complaints. As long as we have leaders responding reflexively, we sow the seeds for actions and responses that may later appear retaliatory.

Here are key fears that we all must recognize if we want to avoid even the appearance of "retaliating" against employees, whether or not that is the intent:

  • This employee is a troublemaker; if I appear to take what he says seriously, I'll just embolden him and others and then there'll be no end to this.
  • I'll look weak if I act like maybe I made a mistake or I act open to the possibility that I might have; best to stonewall it.
  • Maybe I'm wrong, but I'm not supposed to make mistakes. I'm supposed to be perfect and I'd better act as if I am.
  • What if I am wrong? I could get in trouble or lose my job and I can't afford either.
  • What if there is a big problem? This could be bad for the organization and I'll get myself and all of us in trouble.

If we avoid dealing with these and similar fears, then all the legal knowledge, policies, hot lines and training in the world will, sooner or later, prove inadequate.

Managers will act on their fears in ways perceived as retaliatory and that will create the natural "fear of retaliation" among your employees. You can't fix the latter without addressing the former.