By Michael Kline
Fear is created by uncertainty. When employees see sales dropping, or others being laid off, or hours being cut, they can’t help but get a little anxious over their own futures. Anything that causes you stress or anxiety if usually perceived by others as something they should be stressed over as well. If they don’t know what the future holds or what the plan is to take control over your collective futures, fear sets in. Fear is not good for productivity. Fear saps the energy from the team just when you really need them to engage and give their best. So what’s a manager to do?
Well, let’s start with the simplest look at this. If uncertainty is causing the problem, the almost-too-obvious answer then, is to remove the uncertainty! Easier said than done, but if you can provide a clear, unmistakable mission, you can turn fear into engagement. Here’s what some experts say. Olivier Blanchard, Economics Professor at MIT and Chief Economist for the International Monetary Fund, advises leaders to “First and foremost, reduce uncertainty… Above all, adopt clear policies and act decisively”. So how do we remove uncertainty? Strategy and communication are the two big issues. Do you have a strategy? If not, we need to start with the basics, review your goals, adjust them if necessary, and come up with a strategy you can achieve given all the current circumstances and resources. This is often a difficult exercise in focusing on what we can do with what we do have, instead of worrying about what we can’t do because of what we don’t have. The process of creating this strategy and executing it are topics for another day. Today we’re talking about how this relates to coping with fear.
Once we have a strategy, communicating it with your staff will help you get a clearer understanding of your own plan, and will build confidence mong your team. You need their confidence if you want them to help you execute the plan instead of working on their resumes.
John Baldoni, “How to talk to you employees about the recession” teaches that if you have a strategy, lay it out clear and simple. If you don’t have one, say so and ask for help. Give people the chance to share feelings, express concerns and, most of all, their ideas. Remember, people need to know they make a valuable contribution – they want to help.
Are your people more in fear about their work situation than the people were on that flight that crash landed on the Hudson River? That would be pretty extreme. The hero/leader pilot on that flight gave the leadership that people in fear crave. There was no chaos like you would see in a movie about a plane crash. When in fear, people tend to be silent, awaiting honesty, the frank truth about the situation, and clear direction as to what to do about it. As the leader in business, this is your job.
Even if you don’t know what to do, you can diffuse a lot of fear simply by communicating the situation.
The belief at the root of fear is that people have no control over their own fate – that they are at the mercy of some change they don’t understand or don’t like. When we do not have any influence over the things that concern us, they can cause anxiety and fear. Fear saps our energy and creativity. When our work seems futile, we disengage and productivity suffers just when we need productivity at its best. Some items of concern we have influence over and some we do not. When we identify, talk about and accept those items that are of concern, but not in our circle of influence, we can separate the circle of influence from our circle of concern, and focus on the things over which we do have influence. Being able to take decisive action on items over which we have influence, is hugely empowering and liberating. Fear subsides and confidence and productivity increase proportionate to our sense of control over our situation. Suddenly things are not so bleak.
In times of change, stay positive, proactive, focused on your circle of influence and above all, communicate with those who depend on you. They want to help and if you didn’t need their help, you wouldn’t have hired them in the first place.