Fear: Common, Expensive, Preventable

By Dr. Jeff Thompson

Business leaders in all industries are constantly searching for ways to boost morale, improve efficiency and become more competitive. In pursuit of those worthy goals, business leaders are also searching for the internal roadblocks that might impede success. Things like disengaged employees, misallocated resources, and procedural inefficiencies are common targets. An important, but often overlooked, impediment to reaching business goals is staff fear.

Fear of their boss, fear of change, fear of making the “wrong” decision, fear for their jobs.

Where does this fear come from?

It often originates with the perceived “separation” between business leaders and their staffs. Boards and senior executives usually have countless reasons why it is “strategic” that the senior leaders should be treated better, have special perks, and be protected from scrutiny of consistently living the corporate values. In reality, the more special and protected senior leaders are treated, the less special and more afraid the frontline staff will feel.

This separation lowers productivity, lowers creativity, and results in excessive turnover. Here is an example. Last year, the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania analyzed and summarized the effects of layoffs on companies and their staffs. Conventional wisdom might say that layoffs will inspire the rest of the staff to put their shoulders to the wheel to work harder. However, there is no evidence that this happens. There is in fact a great deal of evidence that, following layoffs, companies find staff with increased levels of fear and anxiety resulting in decreased productivity, focus, and creativity.

One of the most important jobs of a business leader is to build an environment that increases security and confidence and decreases fear. There will always be some fear in the workplace, but leaders must demonstrate clear, consistent values so fear does not dictate the decisions and actions of the staff, and therefore, compromise the future of the organization.

You simply cannot create enough rules to cover all the decisions, options, and scenarios faced by a complex business, school, or healthcare organization. There are too many people, too many choices, too many unexpected events and opportunities. Instead, by establishing consistent values that are articulated and lived by senior leadership, the same set of values will be reinforced across all groups of staff by clarity of goals and purpose, and will allow staff to feel empowered, unafraid, and capable of making their own decisions at all times, whether a supervisor is present or not.

Following the devastating Hurricane Harvey, an inspiring story surfaced about a group of Houston bakers who were cut off from their families and from the owner of the bakery. Following the values demonstrated consistently by the bakery owner, the bakery employees decided that the right thing to do in light of the devastation in their community would be to use the owner’s flour and equipment to make bread for rescuers and evacuees. They didn’t ask for permission—they couldn’t—but fear did not stop their efforts.

In Chapter 6 of my new book, Lead True, I illustrate a similar story about a hospital staff on a Friday afternoon with no senior leaders available that went about holding a huge, impromptu wedding for an ill patient, using time, energy, and organizational assets. Both stories are great examples of living the values of an organization without fear because the purpose, values, and behaviors of the staff and senior leaders are all aligned and transparent.

If you want your staff to have less fear, increased creativity, genuine engagement and truly serve the mission of the organization, the key is not sets of rules or overbearing bosses, but a structure that supports outward-focused values and a senior leadership team willing to live those values consistently.


Jeff Thompson, MD, is a speaker, pediatrician, chief executive officer emeritus at Gundersen Health System, and author of Lead True with ForbesBooks. Learn more at jeffthompsonmd.com.

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