Employed as a leadership coach for various organizations over the past two years I encountered many working environments; some great, some good, and unfortunately, some not so good. The most demoralizing one is the fear-based working environment. You know that place of employment, where there’s little to no motivation to passionately pursue and expand organizational goals. The problem isn’t the employee but leadership’s inability to foster respect and build trust. In a fear based one working environment, the leader (manager or owner) controls with fear, creating negative vides in the workplace. This type of environment is challenging to say the least. In an economy like ours (December 2009), it is much more difficult for any employee to leave their job for a better work setting, so they stick around hoping for any semblance of change. Like the movie, The Matrix, it’s like being caught in a never ending simulated reality; once you’re in it, you can’t leave. If you do leave, you have to get at the end of line, and wait for weeks, even months to be called for an interview. So what‘s an employee to do? The ideas presented in this blog post will help you navigate through this kind of working environment.
In a fear based working environment employees’ walk on eggshells wondering when the leader will show up to reprimand someone publically. I personally witnessed this scenario first hand many times. I remember a situation where employees were doing their jobs when suddenly the owner appears, standing quietly in a corner unannounced, watching to see if anyone says or does something slightly out of line. As soon as employees’ became aware of this person’s presence the atmosphere changed, giving each other “the look”, as if, “Be aware, she’s here!” As the owner walked around, the employees became quiet, perhaps hoping she would not choose any of them to pick on.
On other occasions, procedures or systems were changed simply by the owner’s whim or because a client-customer made passing comment or mild complaint. Instead of keeping or making a slight adjustment to a working system, a whole new system was devised and implemented. And most critical of all, reprimands were too often made in the open or in meetings, not in a private office.
Liz Ryan, author of Ten Signs of a Fear Based Workplace notes:
“Fear shuts down our ability to think creatively, collaborate, and bring passion to the job. When getting through the day requires a focus on keeping one’s head down, taking no risks, and sucking up to anyone in management, your organization’s soul has left the picture.”
A fear-based working environment is difficult to change, since the owner/leader is set in his or her ways. Insecure leaders who think critically of others, rather than optimistically breed fear. Weak employees, who fear confronting the obvious elephant in the room, would rather put up with it, keeping the status quo and their jobs. A leader creating this type of environment is usually caught in trap; to change would mean he or she would have to admit they have been managing wrongly, and would need to change their ways. So the struggle to achieve excellent working cultures stalls organizational effectiveness, even quenching the human spirit.
How does one confront such a leader? The best way to do this is through group confrontation, where several respected, tenured and highly qualified employees approach the leader in private with a short list of observations. What is a leader to do, fire this elite group? If a leader has any sense he or she should receive this honest feedback to gain respect required to lead effectively, then create the changes needed to transform themselves and their working environments.
What are other suggestions required to turn this type of working environment around?
My son was an outstanding football player who played first-string positions in offense, defense and special teams during two of his High School prep football seasons. He played so often that he rarely got a break on the sidelines to catch a breath of fresh air. The joke around our house posed in question form was, “Man, are they ever going to allow you a breather between plays?”
His genesis in football, however, was dismal at best and I wondered if he would ever play the game well, until one day he had a metamorphosis of his own. Prior to his high school years he played in the Nevada Youth Football League. He had never played the game before but wanted to passionately play. He had one small problem; he was timid when it came to tackling others, which is a major part of playing the game. Whenever he would tackle a player he would grab on and wait for some of his teammates to join in on the tackle. It was obvious he was fearful of hurting someone or being hurt himself. This was a personal constraint line he imposed on himself, perhaps for his lack of experience playing in an actual game. In my best estimation, the line of resistance in his life was fear due to a lack of knowledge and experience.
One day there was an option play that took the running back around the side and down the sidelines. My son was playing the defensive end position and followed the play well. He ran toward the sidelines and gained so much momentum running that he just happened to meet the running back on the sideline at the right angle, at the right time with the right amount of speed and force. He had no other option but to plow him over by his shear momentum. It was a great site for any father to witness, as both of them went crashing down, kicking up dirt and grass as they tumbled upon the ground. As soon as he got off the ground I knew something had happened to him on the inside; there was a monumental change in his stride as he strutted back to the huddle. I discerned his fear had lifted as he had gained a new level of confidence as a gridiron man. He had crossed over the line of demarcation; from operating in fear to playing the game with confidence. When he got back into the huddle, his team members celebrated with him as they smacked his helmet with their hands, a sign of acceptance into an elite fraternity of gridiron men. I also noticed, in the plays that followed, he was not intimidated anymore. For him tackling was not a bad thing after all. He had tasted the experience of a tackle and liked it; therefore, crossing his personal line of demarcation, thus, distinguishing himself from his fear of tackling others by himself. My son had broken through fear, and went on to have many more successful prep football seasons as an all around, first string player.
How have you broken through the line of fear in your life?
Intimidation, the third insidious killer for leaders, is the menacing giant facing you down, keeping you from advancing and accomplishing your objective. When David, the shepherd boy, faced Goliath on the battlefield he courageously invoked a powerful faith declaration and took action steps to overcome the giant’s intimidation tactic. David said to the Philistine:
“You come against me with sword and spear and javelin, but I come against you in the name of the Lord Almighty, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied. This day the Lord will hand you over to me, and I’ll strike you down and cut off your head. Today I will give the carcasses of the Philistine army to the birds of the air and the beasts of the earth, and the whole world will know that there is a God in Israel. All those gathered here will know that it is not by sword or spear that the Lord saves; for the battle is the Lord’s, and he will give all of you into our hands.” (1 Samuel 17:45-47 NIV)
David’s courage was key in overcoming Goliath’s intimidation. Therefore, building courage minimizes, even eliminates the intimidation factor. Courage is not the possession of physical strength, or size. David surely did not possess these qualities during his encounter with the giant. Courage is simply strengthening one’s mind by speaking forthrightly to the problem, then taking actions steps to ensure victory. Speaking a faith declaration engages a person’s total physiology, increasing adrenaline and the rush of blood to the brain. It’s the rush of blood to the brain that makes the difference, a rush of belief into the brain stimulating a “can do” attitude. A positive faith declaration rushes blood to the head stimulating action, while negative emotions tend to rush blood away from the brain to the legs igniting our flight mechanism.
4. Incompetence – The knowledge pool is not so deep
The last insidious killer for leaders is incompetence, which is the inability to take action for one’s lack of knowledge or inexperience to do the job. So what do you do when you’re summoned to do something but you sense your knowledge pool is not so deep? In my opinion, this is the time for collaboration. Collaboration is working with others to tap into another’s knowledge and insight. Incompetence rears its ugly head when we hit a dead end road; you know the place where awareness sets in so we can see our limitations for the first time. This isn’t a time for reclining into pity rather a time of recruiting others into action. Collaboration is about tapping into the knowledge pool of those with greater skill sets, talents and experiences necessary for you to accomplish your objective. To overcome incompetence do not stand-alone rather deepen your pool of knowledge by standing alongside others.
Confronting the Four Killers
The four C’s that overcome the four insidious killers are building internal capacity, gaining confidence, walking in courage, and seeking collaboration. Let’s go back to our story. After the pastor exhausted all leads, and upon my prompting this person finally stepped in to preside over the funeral. Was it difficult? Yes. Did the pastor overcome initial fears? Absolutely, but it wasn’t easy. Confronting one or more of these insidious killers of leadership won’t be easy but confrontation is necessary if leaders are to emerge victoriously. Leaders must ask themselves “Do I want to stay the same?” If so, they’re actually moving backwards instead of maturing into a larger leadership role. New challenges will confront emerging leaders. If leaders want to advance they need to understand these four insidious killers will confront them at each move. If you adopt these four counter actions you’ll be more apt to move forward, surmounting the odds to set yourself on the course of becoming the great leader you were destined to be.
How do you deal with intimidation? Is intimidation common in your life? How has incompetence stifled you in the past?