Fear has many looks and is stifling to employee productivity

Grace always has an eye out for danger. That means she misses out on many opportunities for relaxation, but as importantly, her fear restrains her from trying new experiences that would be helpful or enjoyable for her.

Grace always has an eye out for danger. She’s sitting here with her back to me, intent on the possibility that something or someone might travel down the road. Her constant vigilance for trouble means she misses out on many opportunities for relaxation, but as importantly, her fear restrains her from trying new experiences that would be helpful or enjoyable for her.

Grace is always on guard. Any new sound, or unusual sight, whether real or imagined, haunts her. She is in overdrive to protect her safety, and probably mine, too. Animals have that instinct, especially those that live (or started out like Grace did) in an environment with constant unknown and life-threatening factors. It could be deadly to drop your guard.

In the workplace, each person has their own definition of “deadly.” At the extreme (but often very realistic) end, the greatest danger might be to lose one’s job. Other devastating possibilities include loss of reputation, lack of respect and/or approval, feeling under-appreciated or valued, to name a few.

I think it’s important to note that even when we, as managers, feel that we have created a safe, fear-free environment, that might not be the perspective the employee shares. Just ask Grace about that.

The signs that a person may be experiencing some fear are sometimes overlooked or attributed to something else. For example, a manager may think an employee is lazy or apathetic when in fact they are worried about the ramification for speaking up.

The reason this becomes so important for managers is because we minimize or are unaware of the impact this has for individuals. When we hear the word fear in the workplace, we think major stuff. Stuff that can’t be happening in our office. But any degree of fear can have an enormous impact on how the team operates.

It’s critical that a manager keeps the lines of communication open with employees. Informal, frequent conversations are important. Simply asking for an opinion or input on a topic goes a long way to reducing or eliminating fear. Naturally, you want to make sure you are genuinely interested in their thoughts before asking. You don’t have to agree or act upon every suggestion, but you should acknowledge the contribution and circle back with your decision and its rationale.

In addition to the day-to-day dialogue, there are formal, structural methods to allow for organized feedback. A 360 degree feedback system is an ideal way which when done correctly, can be invaluable to understanding perceptions.

Good managers recognize the value of feedback. They also recognize how difficult it is for some people to offer it. The most successful outcomes are achieved when two or more people can hold truthful and respectful exchanges.

Because I am constantly aware of the fear Grace faces each day, it heightens my awareness of it within organizations. I see it. It’s there. Do you see it, too? What can you do to eliminate it? 

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