Harmful Fear: Eliminate it in 2018!

Recent posts explored what fear is and the importance of normal, healthy fear for performance and learning. This post continues that series looking at the flip side, harmful fears, their high cost, and the need to eliminate them from the workplace.

Workplace fear is an all too common experience. Talk to almost anyone willing to be candid and they can tell you about a time, either past or present, of harmful fear at work. 

Those with fears in the past may still experience a kind of post traumatic stress disorder over it. They may carry a residual sense of caution, insecurity, and anxiety that it might happen again. They may have an aversion to or be triggered by certain situations. They may have a reasonable unwillingness to step out and take risks. Even if they are psychologically safe and supported now, they’ve learned that the workplace can be dangerous, and they carry that knowledge with them. 

Others are not experiencing POST traumatic stress disorder.

For others, the workplace is traumatic NOW. Right now, currently, all-the-time traumatic. All over the workforce today, people are enduring humiliation on the job, risking physical injury, or trying to avoid sexual harassment. For some because of their ethnicity, race, or religion, they are kept apart, not quite accepted, or are blatantly discriminated against. Others feel suspicion and judgment, and are passed over for opportunities. Some people are just trying to figure out how to be successful after an organizational change. Others have had their trust betrayed, and they don’t know where to turn now.

This workplace trauma is dehumanizing and seriously harmful.

People in these kinds of workplace fear situations are anxious when they wake up. They dread going to work. They are on edge and uncertain throughout the workday, in a constant state of fight or flight. They fear going to team huddles. They fear submitting their work. They fear meeting with THAT manager. They fear walking into the lunchroom where they are subtly excluded from groups of colleagues. They are distracted trying to figure out how to meet unknown expectations without the right information. Lacking a sense of belonging or trust, they fear for their livelihood.

This workplace trauma causes disorder.

Disorder for the individual. Disorder to the work. Disorder for customers.  

Individuals have difficulty concentrating and getting things done. Trauma and fear impact their willingness to share ideas and take risks; they second guess themselves. They take the fear home where it impacts their personal relationships and eats away at their peace of mind.

And individuals end up getting sick. They suffer depression, insomnia, digestive disorders, heart disease, increased symptoms of diabetes, sickness from a suppressed immune system, and more. They may seek therapy to understand and cope with what’s happening. These physical and psychological impacts have serious, costly, and lasting consequences.  

This trauma also causes disorder in the work, which ultimately creates disorder for customers. With low trust and belonging, compliance and punishment rule the day rather than shared responsibility. The work becomes chaotic as communication and collaboration disappear. Producing work of any quality, let alone high quality, takes a massive effort. Customer complaints increase. Problems are not solved; heck, they are not even identified. Who is going to speak up about problems in an atmosphere of fear? The focus is not on delivering value for the customer, but rather on personally surviving the day.

Pam's Story

Pam’s story exemplifies the harmful impacts of fear at work. Pam (not her real name) had a job she loved and a supportive team. She’d always received great reviews. But when her trusted leader was promoted, a new, less experienced leader stepped in. That new leader created a sense of uncertainty. He did not clarify his expectations nor help her understand how the work was changing. He created insiders and outsiders. Pam was asked to leave meetings when it was time to discuss information which was relevant to her job and had been shared with her in the past.

Calling her out like this communicated that there was something wrong with her, and she was not trusted. She felt completely insecure in her job, uncertain about her place on the team and doubtful of her ability to contribute. Other team members quietly empathized with Pam who ended up leaving and finding another organization where she could contribute and be successful. 

This harmful fear is the kind of fear we must eliminate from the workplace. It doesn't help us learn or perform. It degrades workers, the work product, the workplace, and customer satisfaction.

In 2018, may we create a workplace characterized by trust, respect, empathy, high commitment, mutual responsibility, and love ... A more human workplace!

What stood out to you in 2017? What is your resolve for 2018? 

Next: What about accountability?

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