In Fear of Fear

I’ve been hearing a lot about the ‘F’ word lately. Fear is all around us, and as a basic fight or flight mechanism we couldn’t live without it. Beyond that though – how do we check it and prevent it from lurking in our minds and affecting our decisions. When I worked in BT I watched the responses that strongly disagreed with the ‘I believe it is safe to speak up’ statement in the staff survey, steadily grow over five years. Every time I mentioned what I was seeing there was plenty of staring at shoes, and precious little else. I’m not proud of the fact that after a while I stopped banging the drum, primarily out of boredom.

Fear – Not My Problem

‘This fear thing doesn’t affect me – I’m not afraid to tell it like it is’ might be your response, and I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard responses like ‘That’s people stuff, HR’s job’, but here’s some data that suggests just over a third of US employees don’t speak up for fear of retribution. So even if you’re one of the brave, the chances are you’re working with people who don’t feel the same way. And whilst I’m not a fan of departmentalising the responsibility for being human, I think this is a really interesting and important challenge for Brave HR to step confidently into and lead the way, maybe as part of a wellness or wellbeing strategy?

Fear – Coming From The Top?

We’re good at attributing problems to those more distant from us. By way of a recent example, Tim Scott, Stephen Tovey and I got into a discussion on Twitter about fear at work and how it manifests itself, which you can flick through here:

Twitter Chat Screenshot

And whilst I’m sure that you too can recall examples of that top down ‘fear as a weapon’ approach, I think there’s more to it than that.

Fear – How Do We Experience It?

When you see people not objecting to bad behaviour, it is fear that constrains them.

When you see people saying yes when they want to say no, it is usually fear that is driving them.

When you see people staying silent when they should be speaking out, it is fear holding their tongues.

When leaders ask, “Is that agreed?”, they often take as agreement the silence that is most people’s greatest protest.

When you see senior management not sharing their concerns with junior staff because it might harm morale, it is fear that is causing them to keep their secret. That fear denies them access to the creative minds that may help them solve the problems causing their fear.

We all have the potential to be crippled and corroded by fear – it is not the sole preserve of the front line.

Fear – How Do We Deal With It?

I’ve spent my adult life overcoming fear. For me, one aspect is my fear of presenting. Whuh! Yep – it’s true, I get totes scared before a talk. In Louisiana recently, William Tincup spotted me looking all nervous looking and came up to me, put a hand on my arm and said, ‘If it ain’t scaring ya, you ain’t doing it right’. Thanks William – I appreciated that moment, it was very timely. I manage this fear partly through practicing, partly through some kind of weird mental transmogrification where I channel nerves into excitement, and partly by being open about it. I am completely cool that you know this about me.

A practical thing that one can do at any work meeting is to ask, “What have we agreed to do?” and in turn, “What are you personally going to do to help us achieve what we have all agreed to do?” Anyone is more likely to deliver what he or she hears themselves commit to aloud in front of their peers than to fulfill someone else’s draft of the minutes of a meeting long after the discussion. That commitment and delivery builds positive trust very quickly and has a diminishing affect on fear.

In the workplace I often use ‘Proceed Until Apprehended’ as a call for people I work with to get on and do stuff, don’t wait for permission. It started when I worked in sales at BT and I made it work initially through taking responsibility for my team’s actions. This was easy for me because I trusted them and because we didn’t hide stuff from each other, we just worked in a way that meant we knew what each other were doing, and were the similarities and differences were.

A lot of what we did differently was small, teeny tiny stuff. Stuff like getting to know other teams better, researching customers and their markets more thoroughly, not sending that ‘vital’ report and then realising that when you didn’t send it – no one came looking anyway. And we took the time to learn to listen better. As an aside – Paul Hebert has just published a really good post about selling behaviours, which because they are a lot about building trust, are also helpful in creating a more open, less fearful workplace. I confidently attribute the progress I made in BT in no small part due to Proceed Until Apprehended, and to learning and following some of Paul’s suggested sales behaviours, because this approach led directly to making things better for our customers our colleagues and ourselves.

I spotted this definition of ‘Fearless’ written by Khurshed Dehnugara in response to the question about defining adaptability that I referenced yesterday. Khurshed wrote:  ’Fearless. The courage to dance at the limits of tolerance, one foot inside – one foot outside of the established order. To overcome the fear of being shunned or thought irrelevant.’ I liked that – and wanted to share it with you today.

And of course – you can deal with fear too. If I can, you can. I’m just an ordinary person, so use that fact as a springboard of belief from which to launch yourself. And as a final thought, if the environment in which you operate is so toxic that you really daren’t stray from the path, then leave. Get a better job….after all, what’s stopping you?

Leave a Reply