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Know Fear as a Leader

September 20, 2020

To say that the workplace has changed a lot in the past decade, with more changes imminent, should not come as a surprise to anyone. It’s almost become a trite statement to talk about the rapid changes that organizations have undergone. People — managers and staff — know this. They live it every day at work and in their personal lives.

However, what’s not been talked about very much in the past is the issue of fear in organizations. When it’s addressed in the literature it’s often in the context of learning. The aspect of managerial leadership and its link to fear has not been written about widely, and when it’s discussed it’s not given enough attention. Management-leadership consultants Kathleen Ryan and Daniel Oestreich have carried out extensive on this topic over many years, producing several books under the theme Driving Fear Out of the Workplace.

They define fear in the workplace as: “feeling threatened by possible repercussions as a result of speaking up about work-related concerns.” Their research found that almost three quarters of those interviewed said that they hesitated to speak up because they expected some form of repercussion.

However, the authors’ finding is that in most cases the “intimidating” behaviours managers show are done unconsciously. There’s also the aspect of perceptions held by employees who have come from traditional, hierarchical organizations where repressive management practices occur. As one manager stated during an interview: “No one tries to manage by fear. Our behaviour is avoidance for the most part and people become afraid because of it.”

The subject of fear in the workplace centres around what Ryan and Oestreich call the “undiscussables.” These are the issues that people are afraid to discuss. They come in two forms. First, there’s the problem of someone who hesitates to bring into the open and talk to those who can help resolve it. Second, because the problem is not being discussed, it becomes a barrier to people doing their work properly because interpersonal relationships have become broken.

People do in fact talk about the “undiscussables.” But this is done privately in coffee rooms, hallways, washrooms, pubs, or at home. Ryan and Oestreich note: “We have come to view undiscussables as the window through which it is possible to see the dynamics that frighten people at work.” The biggest undiscussable, according to their research, was management practice. Following well behind were co-worker performance and pay issues, along with several others. Within management practice, the focus was on the interpersonal style of the boss. Other elements in this category included: how decisions were made, favouritism, heavy workloads, and ethics.

The main themes that emerged from their research were:

a) people found it very difficult to speak to their managers about their management style;

b) there was no significant difference in undiscussables at the various levels of the organization

c) problems with co-workers were less of a problem than with bosses.

With respect to the last theme, they note that as organizations become flatter they expect co-workers relations and performance issues to become more of a problem.

Ryan and Oestreich make a key observation when they state: “One of the reasons why concerns about management show up so often is that they are symbolic of a culture of mistrust and blame….When employees focus on self-interest and see their bosses as the competition, they will not be concerned about making creative contributions to the organization. ‘Them versus us’ thinking does not lead to collaborative problem solving.”

So where does that leave the issue of fear in organizations? Two other authors Richard Whiteley and Diane Hessan talk about what they call four elements of Contact Leadership. The managerial leader who practices and lives by these qualities will help banish fear from the workplace, instilling in its place a climate of commitment, openness, and innovation. These qualities are:

1. A passion to connect with customers and employees. The managerial leader doesn’t just want to hear about what is going on but is actively involved in the work.

2. A deep commitment to creating meaning for employees in clear and tangible terms. The leader ensures that staff understand where they fit in the bigger picture and the overall vision for the organization.

3. An ability to mobilize employees and to help them grow through challenging work. The leader goes beyond enabling her staff. She is able to get them aligned and pointed towards the same goal.

4. An ability to inspire employees and to encourage them to become leaders. This means creating a climate of shared leadership in the organization.

The key to moving beyond the paralyzing effects of fear in the workplace is for leaders to acknowledge it exists, commit to eliminating it through participative management practices and put it into action through a transparent process. Organized labour, if present in the workplace, needs to be actively included. Stakeholders, too, such as suppliers and corporate partners, must also be part of the process.

Fear has no place in companies; they have their hands full trying to maintain their market share in a competitive environment. The public sector has specific and daunting challenges trying to control spending while meeting the needs and wants of citizens. Fear among public servants is an anvil around management’s neck in its effort to become more efficient in delivering services and programs.

And the first place to start is for those in leadership positions to Know Fear.

Instead of creating “us and them” distinctions, people talk in terms of ‘we.’ In spirit, people assume that “we’re all in this together.”

– Kathleen Ryan and Daniel Oestreic

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