How fear-based thinking undermines our success from within

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What is the first thing you can think of that could undermine your own peace of mind? Some sort of cybercrime against you? Perhaps, but we're thinking of something primarily internal. Your own fear.

Fear is a primal instinct for every human. It is present and influencing our actions every day without us even realising it. Of course you know very well that fear is present when it is causing your heart to pound so forcefully that you can hear it, or you have a pit in your stomach, maybe for you it is a tightness in your chest. That sense of panic, the fight or flight adrenal response might just save your life in times of emergency and in that sense it is a very beneficial human characteristic.

We are usually not as conscious of it when it sounds more like the little voice in your head that quietly undermines your confidence, warns you that ‘it’ll never work’ or ‘you’re just not ready for that'….and yet the effects of fear in this type of situation can be debilitating – we call it ‘stealth fear’, and because of the way it presents, it largely goes unseen and unchecked.

One of the things we often observe in senior leaders as they are considering how to build more effective organisational culture is the extent that ‘stealth fears’ are holding them back, stifling their culture, their leaders, their people and ultimately their results.

For example, when evolving 'how' their organisations work to be more flexible, it sounds something like this: “The floodgates will open”, “I’ll never see my people”, They will take the piss”. This all fear-based thinking.

These expressions are extremely common. Is this because it is sound leadership wisdom based on evidence and lived experience?….. not completely. It is primarily your 'stealth fear' talking. There is a very comfortable (and totally false) sense of confidence that people are working just because you can physically see them at their desk and that strict rules to get your people ‘in line’ will result in high quality, productive work. We can just envisage your eyes rolling, as you recognise how silly it is when said out loud.

Humans (and leaders are ultimately still humans, even the amazing ones) are actually wired to overestimate the risk of change, and underestimate (or discount entirely) the risk of NOT changing.

The 'floodgate' fear comes in many forms. If I give it to this person/group I will have to give it to everyone. It’s ok if person A has it (high performer/or just like me) but I don’t want person B to have it. 

In our experience and research at Juggle Strategies it doesn’t happen like a damn bursting. For exactly the same reason managers behaviour is slow to change, so it is for most people in your organisation. They are used to a set of rules, of social norms, of doing things the way they always have. It is extremely rare for someone to radically change their work habits overnight.  

Stop to think and consider this a little more and you just may begin to release those floodgates yourself. Rationally, we know it would be likely to accelerate your growth, improve your customer experience, your employee engagement and belonging, your innovation and creativity. A strong team has a sense of responsibility to each other, not just their manager or the rules. High performing teams value and respect their peers points of view and see benefit from collaborating, but they also take time to work independently, with a growing need to have some level of autonomy over how, when and where they choose to do that work. Strong teams trust each other, so when you signal low trust in your staff by imposing artificial barriers and limits to those choices you are actually actively undermining your own success. 

We firmly believe that you reap what you sow, if you create a low trust environment you will elicit behaviour that reflects it. This idea stems from McGregor’s management study Theory X and Y.  Theory X, which McGregor argues is effective up to a point reflects “an underlying belief that management must counteract an inherent human tendency to avoid work”, whereas Theory Y “assumes that people will exercise self-control in the achievement of organisational objectives to the degree that they are committed to those objectives”.  McGregor argues that it is therefore the job of management not to set strict rules, but to inspire and increase commitment to the objectives and let their people work hard in their own self-directed ways, driven by their innate human need for achievement and self-respect. (Echoing the work of Psychologist Maslow and Behavioural Scientist Dan Pink).

To quote Clay Shirky, 'The loss of control you fear is already in the past'. 

So how can we move forward? Here are our 5 recommendations to overcome the limitations fear has over your success in modernising your culture:
 

Become comfortable with a little uncertainty

If you haven’t stepped a little outside of your comfort zone you have stopped growing, it’s just a question of how big the step needs to be.

Have an open discussion

Draw unconscious bias into the light of day so that you can rationally assess it.  Recognise what is fear of change/unknown and what is a genuine business risk. Mitigate where you need to, and let go of the rest.

Support your managers

It is unfair to ask them to change the way they have always worked and seen others work overnight because of a change of policy. Give them confidence with skills, frameworks and principles so that they can apply their judgement in unique and unanticipated situations, and guidance on what to do if it goes wrong.

Stay open to change

Don’t set it in stone, be prepared with what good will look like in your unique situation and what will be leading indicators of success or failure. Measure how it is working from the perspective of multiple stakeholder angles and adjust when and where you need to – surgically, not with an all or nothing mindset.

Face up to those who (inevitably) will take the piss

Guess what – they have most likely been doing that all the way along, either through underperformance, taking credit for others work, stealing stationary or rorting expenses…chances are you knew exactly who that person would be because they have over time displayed a lack of integrity already that you chose to turn a blind eye to. It’s important for everyone that you deal with the very small minority who do the wrong thing and stay out of the way of everyone else rather than stifle everyone with lowest common denominator standards.

Connect with us to find out what flex could look like in your organisation or contact Juggle Strategies Co-Founder, Maja Paleka directly at maja.paleka@jugglestrategies.com.au

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