Working in a culture of fear - Dr Jo Clarke, Petros

“What would you do if you weren’t afraid?”, so asked Sheryl Sandberg, a leader over at Facebook,  she is clearly a formidable woman (her Wikipedia entry is awesome). And her quote above posses an equally formidable question, at least from the perspective of a psychologist like me, and that’s, “Afraid of What?”

Afraid of failing, or maybe succeeding?

Of never being noticed, or standing out in a crowd?

Of things always staying the same, or of change?

Perhaps before we can work out what we could achieve if we weren’t afraid, we need to work out what scares us.

According to Gavin de Becker, fear is a gift.  It’s a gift because without out fear we would be oblivious to danger.  Fear, like all emotions, is a signal to act.  Sometimes that action could make the difference between life and death, and at its very core, fear is about survival.  But, in our work culture fear signals are far less likely to be about physical survival than they are about an emotional, psychological or cognitive threat – and it is perhaps surprising how much of that goes on in our head, with very little basis in reality.

“Do one thing every day that scares you.”

Eleanor Roosevelt

For 20 years I have worked in prisons, mostly of the high security variety.  These are potentially very threatening places, given that, by definition, the residents are antisocial.  But, the story that follows is not about a hostage taking, riot or an assault; it is about the chaos created by a proposed office move.

The prison parole clerk, we’ll call him Bill, was an elderly gentleman who had worked in the establishment for several decades.  He managed prisoners’ records, freedom of information and data protection requests and was master of his 12ft by 12ft domain. As the prison population grew, so did the number of records. The Governor, in support of Bill and his increasingly cramped working conditions, proposed a review of the office situation (please note, a review, not an actual move) and within three weeks Bill had resigned.  So, what on earth went wrong?  The reality was, Bill was terrified of change, perhaps of his ability to adjust to a new working environment, to remain competent at his job in the light of the turmoil that was likely to accompany the move.  His very identity as an efficient and expert administrator was under threat and he had no skills or strategies to deal with that – his only option was to flee, along with his 30 years’ knowledge and experience.  It was a devastating loss.

“There is only one thing that makes a dream impossible to achieve: the fear of failure.”

Paolo Coelho, The Alchemist

While this is a rather extreme (though true) story, variations on this theme play out every minute in organisations around the world. Bill, based on a small piece of information, made up a whole narrative in his head about his future at work.  Sadly, for him, his narrative was of the horror genre and he reacted accordingly.  We all do this.  Indeed, story telling is perhaps one of our greatest collective strengths. So, as a CEO, senior manager, line manager or even front-line employee, what can we do to minimise the potential harm of these horror stories? There many strategies we can employ and here are two:

1) Understand what makes people fearful.

2) Provide people with the strategies to respond adaptively to the fear they generate in their heads.  Notice we are not talking about people not being fearful – fear is useful, it is a signal to act.

Highlighted in Google’s 2015 short paper Five Keys to a Successful Google Team and featured within Culture, episode seven of How to Be Good at Work, I find myself falling out slightly with Google’s five principles. The aim is to get the very best out of people and do away with the old culture of fear.  But what exactly do Google mean?  Let’s take Psychological Safety – the first of Google’s principles.  That sounds fantastic – to be psychologically safe at work – where team members feel safe to take risks and be vulnerable with each other.  But doesn’t taking risks involve feeling just a bit fearful?  If it didn’t it would be risky!  To illustrate this, let’s subject the concept of psychological safety to Daniel Offman’s Core Competency Framework.

“I wonder if fears ever really go away, or if they just lose their power over us.”

Veronica Roth, Allegiant

Offman contends that our weaknesses are not the opposites of our strengths but of having too much a good thing – which then becomes a ‘pitfall’, or an amplification of the strength.  To avoid falling into our pit we need to keep our balance with a challenge.  If we overdo the challenge we might experience an allergic reaction, the negative opposite of core quality.

So, if the core quality is psychological safety, the pitfall (too much of a good thing) might be complacency.  The challenge then is to remain vigilant.  Too much vigilance might lead to fear, the allergy (negative opposite) of psychological safety.  So, while psychological safety is a laudable principle, ideally, it needs to be accompanied by vigilance.

We could subject ‘meaning’, another of Google’s keys, to the same treatment.  The pitfall of too much meaning might be over-investment (on a personal level).  The challenge then would be to remain objective and keep perspective, without becoming disengaged (allergy).

The thing is, life is dynamic. Everything is in constant motion, so, a set of static principles or values can very easily get swept away. Responding to that level of dynamism without subjecting every principal, or quality, to Offman’s framework (although it is an excellent personal development tool), requires a radical solution.  Sometimes radical is exceptionally simple.  The answer is attention control.  Think about it…

Where is your attention most of the time? Probably hijacked by idle daydreams about a bygone past or an imagined future.  That’s if you’re lucky.  If you’re unlucky, it’s not idle daydreams that preoccupy your mind, it’s waking nightmares, such as those experienced by Bill.  His fear, having initially been a signal about a potential threat (change), took on gargantuan proportions, eventually causing him to give up a 30-year role that had, paradoxically, had great meaning to him.  Had he had the strategies to manage his attention, life could have been very different.

Controlling attention is the second of Derek Roger’s evidence-based, four-step approach to living a stress free life.  Yes – it really is possible.  In order to control your attention, you first have to wake up, not the kind of awake where your body is in the meeting room but your mind is in Mauritius (Roger calls that waking sleep) – actually awake – wide awake!  When you’re wide awake your mind and body are in the same place. You are paying attention and connected to your senses, which after all can only work in the present.  Then, when news comes in, such as your work space is going to be reviewed, and you feel that first jolt of panic (a signal to act), you can immediately take control of your attention.

With your attention under control it can’t charge off to make up some horrendous story about something that hasn’t happened.  Your mind stays present.  It is only with presence of mind that we can fully attend to what’s actually going on.  Had Bill been awake and able to manage his attention, he may have been able to consider the pros and cons of a re-organisation, he may have been able to hear the opinions of others and realise they were trying act in his best interests.  He may have been able to present valid arguments for staying put.  He may have been able to express his concerns.  Instead he became so pre-occupied and overwhelmed with the nightmare in his head that he couldn’t hear and couldn’t be heard.  The sad irony is that eventually the decision was taken to leave things as they were – prisoners records are still housed in the same 12 x 12 domain that once was Bill’s.

Returning to Sheryl Sandberg’s quote, I wonder if it might more aptly read “What would you do if you were afraid, but knew how to manage it?” It doesn’t scan as well, but it does suggest that something can be done.  Organisationally (or personally), we will never be able to create an environment where everyone feels safe, largely because we all scared by very different things. And nor we should – fear is a gift!  What we can do though is equip our people with evidence based, simple, highly effective strategies to respond adaptively, especially to their imagine fears.  It’s called resilience and it starts with Waking Up.

De Becker, G (2000) The gift of fear. Bloomsbury publishing

Ofman, D. (2001). Core qualities: A gateway to human resources. Scriptum Management.

Roger, D & Petrie, N (2017) Work without stress: Building a resilient mindset for lasting success. McGraw Hill Education in Partnership with the Centre for Creative Leadership