Understanding Fear & It’s Influence on Workplace Behaviours
This article on Psychological Safety relates to interpersonal risk taking and the perception of its consequences especially in the context of workplace relationships and interactions.
Measured risk-taking, creativity and application of natural talent by employees is priceless. With experience becoming increasingly irrelevant in the VUCA world, applying creative processes such as brainstorming, and six thinking hats has become a norm in problem solving. Looking up to “the boss” for solutions and relying on their experience is losing shine.
Workplace problems have a sense of novelty and cannot be solved with just experience
For problem solving, relying on skills (that often are a result of educational qualification and training) and experience has always been the norm. Traditionally, behavioural interviewers have always looked for past behaviour to predict the future behaviours (and their ability to solve problems) of the candidates. Most selection processes are designed to ascertain a candidate’s skills and experiences. The entire process is infested with tests and interviews that revolve around understanding the candidates experience and their response to various situations they may have faced in the past.
What matters the most is if the candidate, irrespective of their past experiences and skills, can engage and solve problems that you face today. A candidate’s skills and experiences are not primary indicators of their ability to do the job. These are at best secondary indicators. The primary indicator for a person’s performance is their natural talent and if they can utilize their talent in the workplace.
By creating a fearless organization, that promotes Psychological Safety, we can motivate people to go beyond the hierarchy and their job description and solve problems, as they pop up, in creative ways. The key here is to play on people’s natural talent by providing them an environment where they can take risks, speak up and feel safe in making mistakes.
The concept of Psychological Safety applies to this workplace context where people feel safe in taking interpersonal risks, and do not fear being judged and exploited for making mistakes. In fact, most organizations that promote psychological safety view mistakes as a part of the process of achieving success.
Do people naturally feel a sense of fear at workplace?
Fear is an emotional response to a definite threat. Since the brain cannot distinguish between imaginary or real threat, our perception of threat is that it is definitive. And so, fear can be triggered by real and imaginary threats almost in equal intensity. Our body emotionally and physiologically prepares to deal with fear. We act to deal with threat. But even if we do not act, the body continues to be in the state of readiness, and this harms us.
Our most basic fear response includes fight or flight responses expressed as shortness of breath, increased pulse rate and sweating. All the three tenets of human psychology – thinking, feeling and behaviour get effected as we deal with threat with action or preparation.
Quality and perfection are two ways of driving excellent business outcomes. Many managers drive perfection, and this may be interpreted as intolerance for making mistakes. This is the genesis of fear of making mistakes. Martin Antony Co-author of When Perfect Isn’t Good Enough says, “Generally, fears are influenced by both our biological and genetic makeup, as well as our experiences.” We model what we see, Antony said. He gave the example of parents expressing their fears over making mistakes, which a child, like a sponge, soaks up.
Constant messaging from the organization’s leadership to improve performance and quality can trigger fear of underperforming and of making mistakes. Many people live through their entire workday with the constant fear of criticism thereby compromising motivation and productivity.
Managing and reducing the fear of making mistakes doesn’t lie solely on the employee. A significant part of the responsibility, to promote Psychological Safety, lies on the manager. Managers must ascertain if the employee is motivated to take up a new task, and that they have enough time, skill and knowledge to complete the task within the expected timeframe. Managers must also assess if the employee has a fair chance to apply their talents to excel in the job. Managers need to build a work culture where failure is seen as a steppingstone to success – perhaps a learning experience.
Fear of rejection has a similar effect in workplace. Because we may fear disapproval or rejection by others, we may hold back our opinion. In the business context, we may hesitate to speak up and put forth our views. We may choose to remain silent when we see something wrong is being done. We fail to contradict other people’s opinions. On the contrary we may say and do things that help us avoid disagreement with others. Agreement reduces, at least perceptually so, the risk of rejection.
Fear of sudden change is also common. While change is inevitable in the today’s world, some people take longer to reconcile to the change. Sudden change can create a sense of ambiguity and uncertainty and makes people feel insecure. We often thrive on predictability and routines and any sudden change can throw us out of gear, making us feel uncomfortable with the situation. This makes employees respond to change with resistance and even nervousness.
They may go into a state of denial and refuse to follow through. Since it’s common to be fearful in times of sudden change, Managers should drive Psychological safety by communicating change as early as possible, removing the surprise element and reinforcing the benefits of change. Managers may help employees accept the change, cope with the new schedule or changed situation and support them in understanding the benefits of change. Managers must work hard to be transparent about both the pros and cons of change and keep the communication lines open even at the most trying times. They may be expected to answer the same questions, driving clarity, many times without annoyance.
Fear of being taken advantage of also interferes with one’s workplace behaviours. It may have a significant influence on our behaviours at workplace especially when there is a lesser sense of control. Fear of being exploited by others can make us exercise control and micro-manage others. It makes us feel insecure just because someone else is in control of a certain task or situation. It may seem like people are taking advantage of our good nature and that depletes motivation to work efficiently.
Excessive fear can cause many problems. One of the usual results of fear is procrastination and avoidance. Because employees fear being criticised, they may not take up high risk projects, avoid social situations where they fear criticism or completely avoid taking creative risk.
The value of playfulness
Fears makes employees engage in what is called “safety behaviours”. Safety Behaviours such as direct avoidance, escape & subtle avoidance (preventive) create a false sense of security but greatly compromise productivity, creativity and efficiency. It may result in over analysing, over cautiousness, over-compliance and over-testing every task. Self-image is important and the fear of being incompetent, weak or inefficient can have a debilitating influence on our priorities, relationships and actions. This is counterproductive to what leaders set out to achieve in the first place. By creating a culture that rewards excitement, joy, playfulness and trust, leaders can enhance Psychological safety, that is reduce fear response and enhance productivity.
Playful environment is typically engaging, interactive and personal. It has a tinge of exuberance and excitement that can even make it messy. It’s typically full of stimuli – light, colour, sound and action. Children’s playground personifies Playfulness! To the contrary, workplaces are dull, formal, elegant and structured. A board room is typically serene, noise free, formal and promotes hierarchical context. Everyone know where their place is. Politeness is rewarded and hierarchy provides cues on relative importance of each person.
Our response in such situations is measured, polite and usually made up to look good. The rigidity of such an environment makes conversations predictable and devalues risk taking, creativity and exuberance. For creating a playful environment, managers must allocate significant time in which employees are encouraged and rewarded to engage in playful activities in a conducive, friendly manner. Failure, in such an environment, is neither criticized nor seen as unproductive.
The fundamental relationship between employees and employers also called the psychological contract has evolved over the last few decades. Traditionally, employees have been contended working with successful organisations that represent big brands and known “winners”. Such organizations are stable, structured, enjoy market and financial success and are usually well known. In recent time, especially with the millennials filling workspace in majority, the psychological contract has seen a tectonic shift.
Business success and job satisfaction go beyond financial success. An engaging work experience that employees are naturally passionate about, connectedness, fun and enjoyment and diversity of opportunities have taken precedence. Employees want to know that the employers are not stuck about the bottom line but are also committed to providing such an engaging experience at workplace. Employees value playfulness, exuberance and fun and want to see it weaved into every aspect of the business.