Are your people afraid?
I’m not asking if they’re scared of you because you are a bully. (You aren’t, are you?)
Nor am I talking about the fear that comes from worrying about being punished for a well-thought-out plan or product launch that fails. Plenty of literature exists on why you need to encourage (small) failures, and how you can help your employees do their jobs better.
I am talking about something much more visceral: anxiety caused by the concern that something drastically harmful—such as a layoff, firing, pay cut, or demotion— is going to happen. Everyone is fragile at the core. We all worry that tomorrow will be our last day. Fear impedes people from doing their best work.
How can you, as a leader, eliminate it? Here are four ways:
1. Be present. Your people spend an inordinate amount of time watching everything you do. If you are almost always behind closed doors, don’t seem to be listening during conversations, spend a lot of time reminiscing about the way things used to be, or talk about a future that seems unconnected to the present, people are going to read things into your actions and words and make stuff up. Typically, what they imagine won’t be positive.
To make yourself present in the eyes of your reports, you need to make yourself open to others by being tuned into your relationship environment. You may need to have a talk you didn’t plan on having with a staffer. Or get sidetracked by a needy employee who distracts you from grandiose thoughts. Welcome to life in the big city. Business is about people. It’s about how we handle our relationships with others.
2. Tell people where they stand. As leaders, we resist doing this because we fear it will lead to broken relationships, feelings of rejection, and messes we can’t fix. So we don’t raise certain issues. Yet people need to know where they stand so they can do something about it. Once they know, they often discover that their imagined fears were much worse than reality.
3. Provide context in every communication. A picture with a frame becomes a different picture. Without background, fear can be elevated by confusion and uncertainty .
A technology company I’m working with is growing rapidly. Sales have tripled in two years and now top $1 billion. The chief financial officer, who came from a large company in anticipation of this kind of growth, brought with him his “‘big company” mindset. One of the first things he told his staff was: “Go out and hire your replacement.”
He thought his message was clear: “I want you to hire someone capable of filling your shoes because given all this growth—and how wonderful you all are—I anticipate promoting each and every one of you.”
His staff heard: “Hire your replacement because none of you are good enough and you all will be fired soon.”
Not surprisingly, his employees grew anxious. Morale and performance suffered. When I explained to the CFO what his people had heard, he instantly understood what he had done. He called a meeting to explain that he wanted his people to go out and search for their own replacements as part of planning for the future and to make it easier for him to promote them when the time was right.
Putting this context around the statement was not only less frightening. It made people feel good about themselves and the company—and more secure about their role in the growth process. Not surprisingly, fear receded and performance improved.
Context can make things that are bad seem right—or at least far less worrisome.
4. Use honesty at all times. No one likes to tell the truth when it will hurt someone or make that person look bad. So we fudge. As adults, we should know better. Often we don’t. When the truth surfaces, the impact is twice as bad as it would have been without the fibs.
At all times, tell the truth—tactfully and within the appropriate context. Context, in this case, does not mean spin. Don’t make a situation sound better than it is, even if you can.
As a leader, you can have no greater resource than a high-performing team. If you are honest, you’ll admit that there are times—maybe far too often—when the people who work for you are not producing their best work.
Check to see if fear is one reason.