Fear kills culture: two tips to reduce fear in your team


I don’t think I have to explain fear to anyone, because if we look around right now in our lives and our businesses there are lots of examples.

In the final weeks of the presidential campaign the commercials reminded me that fear is a strategy to make me act in a certain way. Imagine getting paid to be great at creating fear. In working with owners of companies, I have heard stories of how that has been brought into the workplace, causing issues with teamwork, attendance and productivity. The good news is that, as leaders, there is something we can do about it.

In my most recent book, “Truth at the Heart: How honesty, trust, and teamwork can transform your business,” I interview six leaders about how they create a positive and high-performing culture in their business. Fear was a topic that came up often, and their wisdom can help you get better at this. As leaders, there are a couple basics on fear that need to be shared.

Understand it

To understand fear, we need to understand the brain. The amygdala is at the base of the brain, and it captures fear and the decisions that get made are fight or flight. Seth Godin calls this the lizard brain and makes the following observation: “The lizard brain is here to keep you alive; the rest of your brain merely makes you a happy, successful, connected member of society.”

Name it

Fear is invisible until we name it, which simply gives it a physical presence that others can see. The irony is that we think we are the only ones who see it, until we name it and realize it was the “elephant in the room” that nobody wanted to talk about. Dr. Diana Wong, Ph.D., shared this: “In myself and in working with many people, the greatest hesitancy in speaking truth is not valuing truth more than fear. It’s:

  • Fear of what other people may think
  • Fear that they don’t like me
  • Fear of the negative consequence that are imagined

Some of it can be real, but often we project the consequences. I find fear to be a great barrier to truth. When it’s a truth-telling moment, when it’s really important, and when the stakes are really high, one has to have courage to confront one’s own fears, battle them and wrestle them to the ground.”

We need to remember that 95% of the things we fear or worry about never happen. The first step in taking the power away from fear is naming it.

We have established an understanding of fear and we have named it … now what? In spending thousands of hours as an observer and participant in team conversations where fear was present, here are two tips that you can do tomorrow to decrease its presence and power in your organization.

The bigger picture

Javier Olvera knows about fear as an entrepreneur and someone who is responsible for the livelihood of over 100 employees at the Supermercado Mexico chain in Grand Rapids. Here is his wisdom around fear: If we all understand the plan and are committed to working to achieve it, fear loses its power.

The simple act of creating a plan, reviewing it with your team at least every 90 days, and always following the same format:

  1. How did we perform over the last 90 days vs. our plan?
  2. What is the state of the business today?
  3. What are the top priorities over the next 90 days?

Through the lens of fear, the first point allows us to address the issues or concerns (our business words for fear) that we entered the quarter with and how we were able to perform despite them. This reminds people of our 95% rule on worries/fears. The second point allows us to address questions or worries we hear from people. In other words, name the elephant(s) in the room. The third point allows us to set the priorities, which is the simple act of listing the key opportunities we are going after or the threats that we all need to focus on so they don’t hurt our business. The plan, in part, can be seen as a prioritized list of our fears and how we will react as an organization.

The observation I have made about leaders who got this during the current COVID-19 crisis is they decreased the planning/communication loops to somewhere between 7 and 28 days so that fear loses its room to grow without being addressed.

Display vulnerability

The most powerful current voice on fear and vulnerability is Brene Brown. She defines vulnerability as, “The emotion that we experience during times of uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure. As leaders, people look for strength from us, and they also are comforted by seeing us address the elephants in the room or some of the hidden feelings we have that invariably align with things they are feeling. Not every demonstration of vulnerability requires an action, because sometimes just saying it out loud starts the process of conquering fear. But sometimes it is the first step in getting help from those around us. Be ready for the phrase ‘How can I help?’ because in my experience it will be said and it will be real, so take advantage of help.”

My stories of vulnerability range from amazing to tragic, and unfortunately most of them are on the ends of this spectrum and not in the middle. I think of a leader saying they are “overwhelmed by their work” and after 45 minutes of help from their team all the elephants had been chased out of the room and they went on to great success in their role and the organization thrived! I also think of a leader who carried around an elephant on their back for over a year and after each offer of help from others they responded, “I got it.” In that year they aged 10, experienced multiple health issues and eventually lost their job.

While displaying vulnerability is the tip, the second half of that is be open to and ready to receive help if that is the solution. When I hear the word “help” from the mouth of someone I know, we are embarking on a fear-reduction activity.

While the political campaign commercials are done, there are still lots of things to be afraid of in the coming months. Crises always bring fear, and part of leading is having the courage to address it. As leaders, we are fear warriors in our families, organizations and communities.

Scott Patchin is a Certified EOS Implementer and author of the newly released book, “Truth at the Heart: How honesty, trust, and teamwork can transform your business.” A special feature of the book is insights into leadership from a diverse group of six experienced leaders. The book is available at Amazon.com.

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