Is Fear The Prime Emotion In Your Workplace?

A CEO invited me to spend the day with his managers and employees. “Listen to them and see if you can tell me what’s wrong,” he said. “These folks just need to grow up.”

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It is not my practice to walk around companies with a “shrink hat” on asking people how they feel. But I do sit in on meetings to see how effectively people use their time.

In this case, my most profound takeaway was that the company had lost its span of emotions. There were no screaming matches but no celebrations, either. No aggressive behaviors — yet plenty of the passive aggressive kind. It seemed fear was the only emotion left. And that’s not good. Fear freezes out new ideas and grinds away at the gears of daily work.

When I shared that insight with the CEO, his initial reaction was disdainful: “I didn’t hire a bunch of scaredy-cats. They should be afraid. If we don’t start hitting our numbers, it won’t be pretty.”

My response was simple: “The fear in your workplace is hindering the execution of your strategy. You either adjust the strategy or you adjust the culture.” Culture has a longer, more sustainable return and is much easier to change than attempting to jury-rig strategy to a non-engaged workforce.

People who are scared make rash decisions. “They need better information, and so do you,” I told him. “The only thing you should fear is mediocrity; and apparently you don’t, because those are your results.”

His company was missing its numbers because the only fuel in the engine was fear. He was, however, incredulous that anyone would fear him or anyone on his team.

Employees can’t thrive in the dark places where leaders say one thing yet do another—and where questions are left unanswered. Employees want to work for a company that:

  • Respects everyone’s contribution.
  • Holds everyone to the same high standards.
  • Gives people control but also holds them accountable for it.
  • Sees beyond the moment.
  • Let’s people know where they stand—every day.

Some leaders focus on being explicit about expectations and transparent about performance and consequences. Then repeat the message often. But what if people also come to work expecting to succeed and not expecting to be lectured? Employees thrive when they expect to have their input taken seriously.

Mark Daniel Suwyn is a continuous improvement expert and consultant for Energage, a Philadelphia-based research and consulting firm that surveyed more than 2 million employees at more than 7,000 organizations in 2019. Energage is The Washington Post’s research partner for Top Workplaces.

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