Opinion: Employees should have no fear in the workplace
Feeling threatened hampers employees’ abilities, says Jan Hills, regardless of what some leaders might insist
We’re naturally inclined to notice threat and negative emotions. Maybe that’s why so much is written about them.
Most of it looks at how we respond; the emotional and physiological impact and the reasons we evolved to have a bias to perceive potential danger.
This bias has kept us alive. Even today, it stops us from walking under buses, taking too much risk or getting into fights with people more powerful than us.
Fear is best defined as an emotional response to a known or definite threat. For example, when the boss tells you he doesn’t like your work, or you hear footsteps behind you while walking down a dark alley.
Fear attempts to keep you safe; it triggers body’s fight or flight reaction, with physical changes including rapid breathing, increased heart rate and sweating. When you experience fear, you automatically focus on avoiding the danger, which affects your thinking, feeling and behaviour.
Both real and imagined events can cause fear – the brain cannot distinguish between the two. Fear tells you to take action to deal with the threat. If no action is taken, you remain in a state of readiness.
Fear is not unheard of in organisations. In a recent breakfast meeting, a partner from a large consisting and accountancy firm argued passionately that fear in their organisation ensured staff worked hard and stayed on their toes.
He firmly believed it gave them a competitive advantage and no amount of discussing how the brain responds would shift his belief. Threat causes suboptimal processing in the executive brain areas which deal with activities like planning, setting goals and rational thought. Surely just the skills the firm needed.
Treating fear in the workplace involves changing the culture and leadership style to one of joy, excitement and trust. We know positive emotions encourage behaviours which are beneficial to businesses: seeing the big picture, making connections and being open to change and learning. Negative emotions tend to increase physiological arousal, narrow perception and restrict behaviour.
Two books have recently been published about creating fear-free organisations. The Fear-Free Organisation takes a neuroscience approach, examining why fear makes businesses unproductive and ineffective. Meanwhile, Reinventing Organisations researches companies which have created fear-free businesses and proposes that a new movement is beginning to create a new type of organisation.
Both books point out that fear-based businesses suffer from power games played at the top and powerlessness at lower levels, from infighting and bureaucracy to endless meetings and never-ending cost-cutting programmes.
In particular, Reinventing Organisations says that deep inside, we long for soulful workplaces with authenticity, community, passion and purpose. The solution, they say, lies with leaders and their courage to relinquish control and trust people to perform.
What is HR’s role in this? Well, the elements of a fear-free organisation are all in HR’s remit; hiring and retention, work practices, performance management and reward and of course the company’s leadership model.
And surely HR’s role is to maximise the ability of people to contribute to the company. That’s accomplished when organisations tap into the whole person and don’t compromise major parts of the brain’s ability.
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