8 Ways to Decrease Organizational Fear

Silhouettes of a group of business people talking.

 “The fantasy about organizational life is that people will behave in logical, unemotional and well-organized ways. It’s as though the boxes on the organizational charts are designed to keep the messiness of reality, people and emotions away from work.”    Dan Oestrich and Kathleen Ryan, co-authors, Driving Fear from The Workplace.

 How is it that with so-called flattened hierarchies, employee engagement efforts and team development there is still so much fear in most organizations?  Fear, the terrible artifact of hundreds of years of authoritarian and assembly line management thinking, is still fully operative today.
 Unconscious thinking, lack of self-awareness, rigid and unchallenged personal and collective beliefs and ignorance, misuse and abuse of power all keep fear alive.  In all of its overt and covert forms, fear still plays as major a role in most organizational life as it did a hundred years ago.  But many of the “forms” have changed. Because management by fiat isn’t an attractive “brand” these days, fear has become more sophisticated and multi-layered. It’s mainstreamed into cultural norms and buried in organizational systems and structures.

 There are still many organizational “leaders,” caught in the (hopefully) transitioning stages of modern organizational practices, who believe that the two primary human emotional motivators are fear and greed.  The news from neuroscience about the function of the human brain as a “social” organ either hasn’t trickled up to these leaders or has not sufficiently impressed them to get management practices in line with scientific facts.

 We are not taught to understand human power dynamics. Our confused, beleaguered education systems still have not determined that understanding intrapersonal and interpersonal fundamentals are keys to personal, professional and institutional success.   Many organizations, departments and teams are still hashing out old power struggles that counter genuine productivity and cause real and unnecessary suffering in the process.

It Doesn’t Have to Be This Way

If you believe, as I do, that fear is the enemy of real engagement, that it thwarts personal and collective progress and that it makes us sick, it’s crucial that we identify the ways that fear permeates organizational culture and personal behavior.
 The list is long – but let’s highlight a few of the most important practices that can decrease the atmosphere of fear in the workplace:

  1. Increase, Enhance and Model Self Awareness – Unless we are enmeshed in self-deception, it’s difficult for fear to dominate our thinking, feelings and behavior when we are truly self-aware.  Awareness and honest self-reflection can act as an antidote to engaging in fear-based behaviors.
  2. Learn, Practice and Promote Emotional Intelligence – There is simply no excuse for leaders in the 21 century to dismiss the value of emotional literacy and competency. Fear’s an easy and primitive emotional response to elicit – the cheap seat in the house.   Inspiring and influencing others through passion, enthusiasm and courage should be the true calling for leaders.
  3. End Conflict Aversion – Too many people are too afraid to have the critical conversations they need to have to make real progress. Most of the carping, bullying, gossiping and congealed old feelings that keep conflict alive are the result of people being fearful of honest confrontation.  Lack of skill plays a big role in conflict aversion and fear is the glue that holds it together.
  4. Leaders – Loosen the Reins of Control –   A common theme for many groups we work with is still delegation – essentially the fear of letting go of control.  In many cases, structural impediments (practices, rules, norms) impede managers from relinquishing control, but often this is a personal limitation imposed on others because of fear.
  5. Overcome Your Resistance to Change – If you haven’t noticed, nothing is standing still anymore – not that it ever was – but it seems to be going faster today.  Unless you come to terms with the ways you avoid, deny and resist change, you are going to lock fear tactics into place – for yourself and others.
  6. Stop Trying to Control Information, Resources and Decision Making – This item relates to all the other points above (well – actually they are all inter-related).  Regardless of your position within an organization, you have the opportunity to share your knowledge and model trust in your handling of these important organizational currencies.
  7. Model “Transparency” – Transparency is one of those buzz words that’s losing its meaning.  Honesty, reliability and integrity are in such short supply that many of us have become understandably cynical about the possibilities of real transparency in the workplace.  The reality is we cannot sustainably accomplish what we need to accomplish without it. When you model these rare qualities you strike a blow against the domination of fear.
  8. Reduce Work Load – What’s fear got to do with workload? Everything.  Recently a client shared her distress over how her manager was overseeing her work load.  Although she had been traveling extensively for business, putting in long nights working on several projects, our client is still fearful of asking her boss to reduce her load or support her in some way.  In fact, on her last day before heading off to a one week vacation, her manager gave her another assignment due shortly after she would return.  Badly stressed, she spent most of her family vacation on the computer.  Her manager, consciously or not, seems to be clueless as to her employee’s stress level. While our client has a responsibility to share her concerns with her boss, this leader isn’t taking any responsibility to address the fear that is driving one of her most tenacious and responsible employees.

 Wise leaders think about the ways fear impacts their employees. They are concerned and proactive in identifying the ways fear incubates in a culture and infects the mindsets of workers.  These leaders understand that fear, like other emotions, is contagious.   They understand that the human brain is wired for two essential responses – threat and reward. Wisely, they choose to align their organizational practices and work processes with the latter.


Thanks for reading, 

Louise Altman, Partner, Intentional Communication Consultants

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