“The fantasy about organizational life is that people will behave in logical, unemotional and well-organized ways. It’s as though the boxes on the organizational charts are designed to keep the messiness of reality, people and emotions away from work.” Dan Oestrich and Kathleen Ryan, co-authors, Driving Fear from The Workplace.
How is it that with so-called flattened hierarchies, employee engagement efforts and team development there is still so much fear in most organizations? Fear, the terrible artifact of hundreds of years of authoritarian and assembly line management thinking, is still fully operative today.
Unconscious thinking, lack of self-awareness, rigid and unchallenged personal and collective beliefs and ignorance, misuse and abuse of power all keep fear alive. In all of its overt and covert forms, fear still plays as major a role in most organizational life as it did a hundred years ago. But many of the “forms” have changed. Because management by fiat isn’t an attractive “brand” these days, fear has become more sophisticated and multi-layered. It’s mainstreamed into cultural norms and buried in organizational systems and structures.
There are still many organizational “leaders,” caught in the (hopefully) transitioning stages of modern organizational practices, who believe that the two primary human emotional motivators are fear and greed. The news from neuroscience about the function of the human brain as a “social” organ either hasn’t trickled up to these leaders or has not sufficiently impressed them to get management practices in line with scientific facts.
We are not taught to understand human power dynamics. Our confused, beleaguered education systems still have not determined that understanding intrapersonal and interpersonal fundamentals are keys to personal, professional and institutional success. Many organizations, departments and teams are still hashing out old power struggles that counter genuine productivity and cause real and unnecessary suffering in the process.
It Doesn’t Have to Be This Way
If you believe, as I do, that fear is the enemy of real engagement, that it thwarts personal and collective progress and that it makes us sick, it’s crucial that we identify the ways that fear permeates organizational culture and personal behavior.
The list is long – but let’s highlight a few of the most important practices that can decrease the atmosphere of fear in the workplace:
Wise leaders think about the ways fear impacts their employees. They are concerned and proactive in identifying the ways fear incubates in a culture and infects the mindsets of workers. These leaders understand that fear, like other emotions, is contagious. They understand that the human brain is wired for two essential responses – threat and reward. Wisely, they choose to align their organizational practices and work processes with the latter.
Thanks for reading,
Louise Altman, Partner, Intentional Communication Consultants