Five ways to break a culture of fear – Building resilience series, part II

May 7, 2020

Read time 6 min

With the coronavirus and an economic downturn looming over us, the amount of pressure and threat people experience is at a record high. Hence, the ability to handle fear well is now more topical than ever.

In my previous post, I discussed fear and how important it is to make it safe to be afraid. Here, I wish to continue on the same topic and provide you with tips on how to react in difficult situations. Also, I will look at the ways organizational practices affect people’s wellbeing.

Especially in a pressuring situation like this, we have work to do on three different levels. First, we can reduce our own stress levels and improve our own resilience. Second, we can improve interaction on a team level. And third, we can reduce the pressure with actions on the organisation level.

Here, I’m looking at the practical things we can do to improve interaction within a team. When we are stressed, we feel less empathy, and our ability to interact is reduced. Therefore, more conflicts and other issues within teams arise.

Leaders often have their hands full focusing on results and what needs to be done. They don’t necessarily have the capacity to focus on how things are done, specifically in terms of the quality of interactions within the team. In hierarchical organizations in particular, team leaders might not even be in a position to focus on the “how.” There simply isn’t enough trust between them and the team.

Fear can develop anywhere

Years ago, I was working in a leadership team as an internal team coach. In one of the team meetings, the head of the team started to react strongly; he verbally attacked another colleague who was holding a presentation.

I asked for a break and led a one-on-one discussion with the leader. I found out that he was tired and frustrated; he hadn’t slept well, and had come out of a very negative session with his boss.

After the break, I asked everyone to share how they felt about the incident, and how they wanted to continue. The leader also explained his difficult situation, apologizing for overreacting. As a team, we learnt that it’s ok if someone, even the leader, loses their temper; we can handle it as a team. The incident brought us closer together and we came out of it stronger. We were able to break the situation into pieces and discuss, what had caused us fear in the first place.

However, this isn’t the way things usually play out. The leader might apologize to the person under attack, or sometimes not even that. The team will then learn that it’s dangerous to upset the boss and will no longer feel safe. After each incident, all the team members – not just the ones under attack – will learn to be more careful and hide from potential confrontation. That is, they will act out of fear.

Interventions anyone can make

Anyone can intervene in a difficult situation within a team. It does require some courage and a lot of practice, and at first it might be difficult to decide how to intervene. My approach includes five steps:

1. Calm down (if possible)

2. Share how you feel
(“I am angry/disappointed/afraid…”)

3. Share what you observe or think without judging
(“It seems like we are going round in circles”, “This doesn’t help me now.”)

4. Check how others feel
(“Does anyone else feel the same?”, “How do you see it?”)

·5. Share your wishes or needs
(“Can we discuss how to move on from here and agree on some ground rules?”, “Could we talk in turns without interrupting others?

Assess how your organization reacts

Although individual actions are an important part of the wellbeing of a team, they are not enough if organizational practices fail. Especially when it comes to dealing with problems and failures, measures taken by an organization have a huge impact on the amount of fear people feel.

When problems occur, it’s vital for all leaders to ask the following questions in order to understand, how organizational practices affect people’s behaviour: What happens when someone reports a problem? Are they listened to and thanked for raising it? Are people expected to solve problems on their own? Is the focus on finding the guilty parties, or on learning the best way to move forward?

Some dysfunctional practices I have witnessed:

  • Avoiding problems.
    One leader had a motto: “Don’t come to me with problems, come to me with solutions.” While it’s good to be solution-focused, this approach led to people feeling very alone and unable to report issues before they had figured out a solution.
  • Asking for more frequent reporting.
    One program manager once told me: “We have gone from weekly reporting to reporting three times a day. None of it helps me.”
  • Giving people impossible tasks — and replacing anyone who says it’s impossible.
    This is often connected to “this-has-to-happen thinking”, which is wishful thinking at its worst. If the leaders aren’t able to discuss different scenarios and failures, people will soon learn to report only when they succeed.

Instead of falling into these patterns of dysfunctional behavior, I recommend thanking anyone who brings up a difficult issue and simply asking them what they need to help them solve it. This simple but often forgotten practice can have a tremendous effect on the wellbeing of an organisation as a whole.

Make it safe to feel fear

Fear is inevitable; it’s a natural emotional reaction to threat, and there will always be threats and perceived threats in a workplace. There is nothing to fear about fear: we can learn to handle it on an individual, team, and organizational level. This is vital to remember especially in challenging times like this.

On an individual level, handling fear constructively requires you to be comfortable with fear, to recognize it in yourself and to allow others to express it freely. On a team level, you need to take the time to discuss feelings, conflicts, and other issues that come up. If only possible, appointing a team coach will help any team to learn how to work with fear.

On an organizational level, look at how problems and failures are reported. People need encouragement and support to take up problematic issues, to find creative solutions for their problems and to learn from failures.

When it’s safe to feel fear, it is also safe to face reality. Consequently, facing reality will help you and your organization thrive even under the harshest of circumstances.

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