By Judith E. Glaser and Nancy Snell | Leadership Excellence
Published August 2006
Unravel all of your mixed messages.
Fear somehow touches almost every aspect of our lives. It is woven invisibly into the fabric of our existence and often sets into motion a chain of reactions and circumstances.
As leaders we need to ensure that fear does not consume our workplaces and degrade the performance of our people. The key to reducing fear at work is direct and clear communication that eliminates mixed messages—the catalytic driver of fear.
Communicative people are less fearful and more secure because they know where they stand. They are less afraid to ask the awkward questions and less intimidated to have difficult conversations. They know that metamessages live inside of every communication, and they strive to create clarity and understanding.
For example, if you seek new business, you may fail to keep your team in the loop. As time passes, you leave your team without a leader. Soon your people feel disconnected from your activities. Worst-case scenarios seem to be whispered, and one-onone side conversations echo the halls.
As a result, fear starts to dominate your team. It shows up as people start distrusting your leadership capability, turning to other leaders outside the team for advice and information, creating concentric circles of communication with others, and building mountains out of molehills.
Our sense of security and well being are profoundly affected by how well we are kept in the vital loop, how well our leaders interpret and integrate the dynamics and complexities of workplace life for us.
Fear is a natural response to a perception about the future. Employee fear often becomes the ever-present fabric when their managers and leaders are suddenly behind closed doors, speaking in hushed tones, and refusing to address rumors directly. This sends a very direct message. Great leaders put themselves in someone else’s shoes temporarily in an effort to interpret these events for them in a straightforward and truthful way. In doing so, they create a sense of calmness, control, forward movement, security, and direction. Unless leaders set a clear and explicit context for this communication, employees create their own worst-case scenarios.
Fear elevates under certain conditions. Lack of shared focus, purpose, and vision creates confusion. Lack of communication opens the door to paranoia (the ultimate fear response). Lack of interpersonal communication causes more emotion, misunderstanding, and fear. Emotions have a dramatic effect on our success. Positive emotional connection is good for business. Lack of respect for others undermines security, which causes resentment—another form of fear. Failure to tap the inner talent and creativity causes deeper isolation and fear. Failure to develop team agreements, strategies, and decisionmaking policies enhances isolation. Management’s self-serving and exclusionary approaches cause isolation and fear among employees. Negativity and complaining become both the cause and effect of fear. Low morale due to leadership’s inability to acknowledge the truth causes fear.
Tips for Leaders
How can you as a leader build an environment where people feel safe? Mixed messages cause employees to retreat into fear. For example, when you say you care about keeping people in the loop, yet fail to do so, you send meta-messages. When you talk at employees and give directives, but do not ask questions to clarify understanding, you set the context for mixed messages. Inevitably employees will think one thing while you say something else, and confusion will result. Mixed messages create a metaphorical moat. We don’t know which side of the river we are standing on, and without the security of knowing where we stand, we can’t do our best.
Instead of allowing mixed-messages and worst-case scenarios to take over, set the context for inclusion:
- Don’t be afraid to stand up for your people. Create a safe environment so they know that you are there for them. When having vital conversations about the future direction, minimize misunderstandings. Repeat what employees say and ask questions to uncover hidden implications. Be sure that reviews are realistic so that people know exactly where they stand at all times. Be genuinely interested and acknowledge good effort and accomplishments for others to see. Clarify what employees are saying before drawing conclusions or making assumptions.
- Keep an open mind even if you disagree with what is being said so you can understand employee concerns. Remember emotions don’t always reside in logic; they reside in fear, and that’s what you want to release, not amplify. Evaluate information without bias. Ask questions to hear concerns.
- Respond rather than react. Acknowledge employees’ issues and points of view; listen actively so that you can respond. Listen to the logic and the emotion—convey that you hear what is being said at all levels.
- Accept responsibility for the impact of the way you are communicating. Walk the talk—people will know that they can trust you. Say what you mean and mean what you say!
- Don’t be a people pleaser—speak the truth. Be a change agent. Take timely action. Give constructive feedback.
- Understand how unspoken fear is affecting your business. Dealing with it by unraveling mixed messages will have a big bottom-line payoff.