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Managing fear in your organisation

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FearIs your organisation paralysed by fear? Neil Twogood explains how HR can help senior managers to use authentic leadership to beat procrastination and stop the spread of fear.


Fear is rife in the current economic climate. At a time when organisations need their employees to be productive, many are reacting like rabbits in the headlights.

Senior managers are trying to deal with this, whilst managing their own fears. Some worry about their own financial viability – and that of their organisation. Others fear failure or whether they’ll make a mistake or the wrong decision.

Fear can be driven by external forces (‘something has happened and I’m fearful of what will happen next’) or internal forces, such as limiting beliefs or a sense of inadequacy. Am I capable of doing what needs to be done? What happens if I can’t do what’s asked of me? Will I be ridiculed? Fears of this nature relate to very basic human concerns, such as the desire to be respected and valued by other people. This is a powerful driver that can influence our behaviour.

“Most people are not frightened about what has actually happened. They’re fearful of what they imagine might happen.”

Most people are not frightened about what has actually happened. They’re fearful of what they imagine might happen. Often they extrapolate a seemingly logical sequence of events into a fearful scenario. As a result, fear can distort your whole perception of reality.

For example, some years ago, whilst potholing as part of a management development course, the team I was with found our passage through a cave blocked by a large pool of black water. A claustrophobic, non-swimmer in the group became gripped by fear, prompting a sense of panic, which quickly spread, as we began to wonder what would happen if one of us fell into an unseen, underwater cavern. Would we be able to get out? Suddenly, from behind us, a pack of scouts appeared and proceeded to march straight through the water. It was only knee-deep.

We had wrongly assumed that we were in danger of falling into some sunken ravine. But we needed to test those assumptions. Our route had been approved by a local potholing club, so how likely is it that we would face a hazardous submerged chasm without any warning signs? Not very. But that’s what happens with fear.

The upside of fear

Fear should not always be seen as negative. It acts as a warning sign that you need to be cautious and it can prompt you to think through the consequences of your actions. Fear creates an energy. It heightens your focus and your awareness of where you are and what you’re doing.

Fear can also act as a catalyst. For example, the fear of failure often drives people to work hard, to be productive or to seek out new approaches. But failure is an imaginary concept. Underpinning that fear is a belief that ‘we are what we do’.

Organisational consequences

Like a genie free from its bottle, once fear is unleashed in an organisation, it can be hard to put the lid back on it. However, HR can do much to help or hinder the spread of fear.

Research from the Harvard Business Review shows that the mood and behaviour of the leader drives the mood and behaviour of everyone else in the organisation. Maybe you’ve experienced the inspirational impact of working for an upbeat manager or the debilitating drain of toiling for a toxic grouch. The former makes everything feel possible, the latter makes work gruelling.

The point is that everyone watches the boss and takes their emotional cues from him/her – and the domino effect ripples throughout the organisation. So, if employees perceive that their managers are paralysed by fear, the likely result will be widespread fear and anxiety – as well as stress and procrastination. Although tense or terrified employees can be productive in the short term, sooner or later their performance is likely to nosedive.

Supporting senior managers

Many senior managers incorrectly assume that their direct reports would tell them if their mood, behaviour or habits were having a negative effect on the performance of the organisation. In fact, few people have the guts to tell the boss what he/she is really like – either because they feel it isn’t their place to comment or because they are scared of being the bearer of bad news.

An executive coach can help a manager to understand his/her strengths and to see their leadership style as others do, by challenging their thinking and raising their self awareness. 360-degree feedback can also reveal how people experience them.

Key questions for senior managers include: How aware are they of the impact they have on others? How do their mood and behaviour appear to the organisation? Do their words and actions reflect what people are feeling? How open are they to being critiqued?

Because senior managers set the tone for the culture or work environment – and their mood is quite literally contagious – they have a responsibility to manage their own fear and to project confidence, high energy and a positive attitude.

“Successful organisations will be the ones where HR supports authentic leaders who set the right example to those around them. “

HR can play the vital role of a trusted advisor holding up a mirror to help senior managers understand that their mood sets the tone for everyone else in the organisation.

It’s not simply a case of ‘smile and the world smiles with you’. They have to be authentic. In other words, their actions have to match their internal feelings. They can’t fake this by simply putting on a brave face. If someone acts buoyant and upbeat when in fact they are fearful and anxious, people will detect an imbalance. They might not be able to articulate exactly why but that person will come across to them as insincere.

Another important point is that their mood should match the situation at hand: if they have fears, they should acknowledge them but they should try to retain an encouraging air of sincerity, optimism and realism. An effective leader is someone who can say: “Yes, times are tough but what do we need to do to come out of this in great shape?”

So, don’t let your senior managers be paralysed by fear. Help them understand what options their team or the organisation has available and the risks attached to each of these.

Challenging times bring uncertainty into our lives. We all have to manage our reaction to this and this means moving beyond our fears. Successful organisations will be the ones where HR supports authentic leaders who set the right example to those around them.


Neil Twogood is chief operating officer at Performance Consultants, the business coaching, leadership development and coach education specialist


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