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Thom Dennis

Serenity in Leadership Ltd


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How leaders can address fear in the workplace

Is fear dominating your workplace? We explore how to ensure the psychological safety of your employees.
Image of fear behind a mask in grey scale

Improving life at work isn’t rocket science so why are 13.7 million working days lost annually in the UK as a result of work-related stress, anxiety and depression? As much as heavy workloads, long hours and challenging relationships contribute to increased stress levels, one contributor not as closely examined is fear.  

Fear is a response to threats and can be helpful because it alerts us to danger in the real world, but in business, it can choke ambition, creativity, productivity and communication, waste energy and stunt growth because when we are fearful we reduce our focus to concentrate on the perceived threat.  

All these elements of fear can be addressed by good leadership, processes and culture

Fear may come in the form of worrying about losing your job, or as a result of microaggressions, unhealthy power hierarchies, unrealistic targets, as well as overt harassment and conflict. We can also fear failure for fear of getting it wrong or indeed fear succeeding.

The results are often diminished engagement, a lack of inclusivity, reduced productivity and poor wellbeing. But all these elements of fear can be addressed by good leadership, processes and culture. So what are the solutions to dealing with fear at work?  

1. Nurture a deep, preferably independent, analysis of the overarching culture

The first step explores whether conflict is being dealt with effectively. Are there claims of harassment being made and are they being fully looked into? Do employees feel fully included? Do they know they are valued, and their jobs are safe? Looking at systemic issues is crucial because it is rarely down to the inadequacies of one individual.

I recall one organisation where I raised the issue of fear amongst employees to the leadership team of 26 (it was a global company). All bar two expressed outrage over the suggestion that they might be presiding over a culture of fear. Their unwillingness, actually wilful blindness, stood in the way of creative and healing actions.

2. Have good leaders

This second fix seems in theory more straightforward – have good leaders. But today's thriving workplaces mean leaders must be good listeners, excellent coaches and strong collaborators who help their colleagues develop, recognise their contribution and make them feel valued. These leaders are also purpose-driven, honourable and offer an established open line of communication, and are good role models.

If you are a leader and feel exhausted just reading this list know that a manager’s effect on the culture of a workplace is so significant that Gallup believes they can predict 70% of the variance in team engagement just by getting to know the boss. 

3. Provide realistic goals and targets

Is the current workload sustainable? By accurately identifying internal dis-ease, leaders can establish effective strategies to combat them, so colleagues don’t feel threatened by improbable expectations. People want to be surrounded by those who want them to succeed, not set them up to fail.

Regular training on combatting workplace bullying can effectively educate employees on its subtleties

4. Operate a 'safe space' policy

You are pursuing a safe space where every employee feels valued by challenging behaviour that does not align with your company values. Worryingly a reported 63% of respondents in the Warbles 2018 Workplace Experience Study witnessed negative behaviour at work but chose not to report it. Employees experiencing fear in and around the workplace will feel more confident to speak up if they think something will be done about it and they are protected.

By not being complacent and turning a blind eye to discriminatory behaviour, microaggressions and exclusion of certain groups, HR and other leaders set a clear precedent for what is acceptable. Organising regular training on combatting workplace bullying can effectively educate employees on its subtleties and how to call it out when encountered.  

5. Become an ally

Fear is likely to be experienced more highly amongst marginalised or diverse communities within the workforce. Is the company an ally for underrepresented employees and their wider communities? Do you really have an accepting culture?

By challenging stereotypes and biased generalisations, employees from underrepresented groups will likely feel more widely accepted. In order for this to happen, we must become comfortable with being challenged and corrected. Targeting microaggressions and providing everyone with a voice that is listened to and establishing a culture of inclusivity reduces fear and further marginalisation.

6. Understand the weight of language

This is one of the most powerful tools we possess is our use of words, so understanding its capacity to build up and tear down in equal measure is important. Speaking appropriately and being considered before you talk can reduce conflict and the fear of hurting and being hurt.

Shouting the loudest and creating a toxic environment by ‘showing who is boss’ is the opposite of listening and empowering

7. Feeling safe is the opposite of being fearful

Whilst corporate governance dictates how a company is run, employee voice means not just letting workers speak but also actively listening to them and ensuring the business is being run in such a way that is aligned with employees’ values. They want to be recognised and feel like they are stakeholders who have an influence on how things are done.

Shouting the loudest, creating a toxic environment by ‘showing who is boss’ and making employees dread and fear coming to work is the opposite of listening and empowering which ultimately leads to retaining talent and better productivity.

Interested in this topic? Read Leadership: Overcoming fear in the workplace.

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