Fear: The Real Challenge to Employee Engagement

On March 15, 2016, in HRExaminer, by Jason Lauritsen

Jason Lauritsen, HRExaminer.com Editorial Advisory Board Contributor

How would you feel if you received a voicemail or email from your boss that said simply, “Please make sure you come see me this afternoon before you leave.” – Jason Lauritsen

Despite millions (maybe billions) of dollars spent and years of time and resources applied, we still have an epidemic of low employee engagement. Far too many employees go to bed with a pit in their stomach every night and wake up wondering if they can get away with calling in sick one more time.

Work shouldn’t be a painful experience. It can, and should, be a fulfilling (at best) and meaningful (at worst) experience. And, it’s in both the employees’ and management’s best interest to make it better.

So, what’s getting in the way?

Fear.

This universal human emotion is so potent that it can cripple even the best intentions. Fear is in our DNA as humans. It is hard-wired into our brains.

That’s the Fear Talking

How would you feel if you received a voicemail or email from your boss that said simply, “Please make sure you come see me this afternoon before you leave.”

I’m guessing you might feel some anxiety. You probably wouldn’t assume that you’re getting a surprise promotion. Instead, you would assume that it must be bad news. You are in trouble; you made a mistake; or maybe you’re getting laid off. The stories we write in our heads can get pretty ugly.

This example reveals one of the most common ways fear shows up in our lives. When we are uncertain about something, we assume the worst. We all do it. It’s our brains trying to protect us.

The problem, of course, is that uncertainty is all around us. So, the opportunity to write fear-fueled stories in our head is abundant. And, without intervention, these stories become our reality.

This is the root of our employee engagement problem.

Taking on Fear

All employees experience fear (including leaders). We fear change. We fear failure. We fear being rejected. And this is a natural part of being human.

Fear isn’t going anywhere. Our role as leaders isn’t to remove fear, but to better equip our people to face their fear when it shows up. To do this, we must first learn to do it ourselves. Then, we can model it and teach it to others.

Here are some techniques that have I have found effective in my own journey.

  1. Ask questions instead of assuming. Uncertainty is part of life. When you aren’t sure how you are doing at work, ask. When you aren’t sure what’s going on, ask. When you don’t know why a change at work happened, ask someone who would know. Condition yourself to ask questions when there are gaps in the story rather than filling in the gaps with your own assumptions.
  2. When you have to fill in details, consider several versions. When your boss sends you that cryptic email, force yourself to immediately come up with some positive alternatives. Maybe your boss wants to give you a heads up about something relevant to a meeting you have in the morning. Or maybe she got some positive feedback about you that she wants to share in person. Doing this will immediately help diffuse the anxiety that your brain had just triggered.
  3. Consider best case and worst case scenarios. Fear not only impacts how we react to information, but it often cripples us from taking action. For example, if you know you are underpaid, you need to talk to your boss about it. But, too many of us stop before taking that step out of fear. We start to write terrible stories in our mind about what might happen. When you face this decision point, ask yourself these questions:
    a. What’s the best thing that could happen? In this case, you get a raise. Win.
    b. What the worst thing that could happen? Here’s the tricky part. You’ll probably come up with something like, “My boss gets mad, tells me that if I’m not happy with my salary, I can find a new place to work. And I get fired.” That’s the fear talking. When this happens, ask yourself the next question.
    c. Do I have any evidence that this worst case scenario has ever happened? My guess is that you probably can’t produce any evidence that this outcome has ever happened to anyone you know. In this example, I don’t think I have ever heard a single story about someone being fired for asking for a raise. When you push back on your worst case assumptions, you realize that the real worst case is probably that your boss hears you out, now knows you feel underpaid, but won’t or can’t give you a raise. That’s not a bad outcome. Nothing to be afraid of.
    d. Considering the best and worst case scenarios, why wouldn’t you take action? When you push back on your fear, you take away its power. And suddenly, you can’t find a reason not to take action.

Teaching yourself and your team the simple yet challenging steps to facing fear is the most powerful way to create engagement. The fear isn’t going anywhere, but when we learn to take away its power, we make room for more positive emotions and experiences.

 
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