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What Works When Fear Strikes the Workplace

August 7, 2001
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Did you see all those rats?"

    My friend John had just watched a new TV show calledFear Factor. In it, contestants face a series of nerve-rattling, stomach-turningactivities. The one person who can hack it walks off with $50,000.

    John couldn't get over the rat scene. "Each persongot strapped in a pit and had to stay there for four minutes with hundreds ofcrawling, nibbling rats. It was terrible." He started laughing nervously.

    "That's how I feel when I'm at work, like I'min a rat pit," he said. "It's that scary."

    Over the years, John has told me all about the organizationwhere he works. It's a market-research firm known for its high-IQ workforce,but among insiders, it's seen as a place where threats and punishment are routinelyused by managers to "get things done."

    There was the time John got scolded, grade-school style,for taking a devil's advocate look at the boss's suggested methodology for anupcoming project. There was the time he and several coworkers got a month ofsilent treatment from their manager after collaborating with people on anotherproject team. There was the time they were told to meet an outlandish deadline,"or else." There was the time -- well, let's just say there have beenlots of times.

    John has way too much company. In my ongoing focusgroups and informal conversations, I hear countless stories about fear-filledworkplaces.

    One person called his boss Freddy -- as in Freddy Krueger,from A Nightmare on Elm Street. Mr. Krueger had slashed his way to a seniormanagement position, and he used his new authority to stick his least-favoriteemployees with dead-end assignments. When people saw the boss approaching, theywould announce, "He's baaaack." It was their one way to lighten upan otherwise oppressive situation.

    Another person described the fear in her workplaceby quoting from Edgar Allan Poe's "The Raven." She and her colleaguesdid their best to keep away from several key (and apparently raven-like) managers.It was a closed-door culture. Suddenly there came a tapping . . . at my chamberdoor. . . .I stood there, wondering, fearing, doubting . . .

    This is no way to have a totally engaged and productiveworkforce, that's for sure.

    According to the American Institute of Stress, 40 percentof worker turnover is the result of job stress, and some one million workersare absent each workday because of stress-related complaints. Sure, some ofthe stress is unrelated to work or workplace fear, but cut these numbers inhalf and they're still staggering.

    Psychologists have long known the impact of positiveand negative "affect," or mood. A positive affect has been shown topump up creativity, while a negative affect stifles it and leads to mistrust,cynicism, isolation, and competition. Not exactly the stuff we want in our high-performanceorganizations, is it?

    Fear also writes its own version of reality. At data-drivencompanies where fear runs rampant, spreadsheets routinely get tweaked and twistedinto "acceptable" shape. I've heard all about this in my interviewswith well-meaning people who will do just about anything to escape the boss'swrath.

    So how do you stamp out fear?

    Well, first let's come to grips with reality. Thereare some fear-mongering types who are awfully hard to work with no matter whatyou do. The best approach is to try to understand why they are that way, anduse any insights from this to manage the relationship accordingly.

    A bit of empathy, for example, can go a long way. Ifthe boss is under chronic deadline pressure and you are too, perhaps you cancommiserate. If you're both frustrated with edicts from on high, again, tryventing together. This isn't about coddling or caving in; it's about findingcommon ground.

    If you think the fear relates to a lack of communication-- say, you and your colleagues are fearful of some impending and unspoken change,or you're concerned about certain goals and fear the consequences of fallingshort -- open a dialogue with a manager who likely knows the scoop. You'll haveto initiate it, and it might feel as comfortable as an emergency visit to thedentist. But the right questions might yield information that allays fears,and again, you might achieve some common ground. Ideally, try to make the dialoguean ongoing process.

    This is especially important when rumors are swirlingaround the organization. We've all played that grade-school game where someonesecretly decides on a phrase and whispers it to the next person, and the next,and the next. Reality gets pretty distorted, doesn't it? Don't settle for thelatest version of the story. Approach people who might know the facts, and aska few questions to get at the truth.

    Managers have to be especially mindful of what theirverbal and nonverbal messages are saying. If key managers declare a strong commitmentto work/life balance, yet the only people being promoted are those who workendless hours, there's liable to be a low-grade fear among people who don't.Don't cover up reality with misleading rhetoric, just because you think it'swhat people want to hear.

    When analyzing problems, developing ideas and improvements,and making decisions, involve more people. There's no better way to preventunfounded fears. Co-creators can become a sort of "truth squad."

    Last, the most challenging of all: Look at how yourorganization is ultimately managed. Is there a quest for control based on allsorts of rules and decrees? Do managers play "gotcha" with employees,eagerly catching them when a rule is broken? Are performance evaluations andpromotions used to reward people who are simply good at pleasing the boss? Andare you doing any of these things?

    If so, heed these words from Edmund Burke: "Nopassion so effectively robs the mind of all its powers of acting and reasoningas does fear."

Workforce, August 2001, pp.-- SubscribeNow!


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