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Saving The Fruit Bowl: How Can We Re-Invigorate the Workplace?

Sheila Keegan reminds us how dangerous it is when fear distracts everyone from their business objectives, and shows the role a simple fruit bowl can play in turning round the morale at one organization.

When Fear is Used as a Management Tool

Some managers may instil anxiety in staff as a means of ensuring compliance. Fear may be integral to the organizational culture so that employees are afraid to complain or to speak out. An employee described her experience at work as 'Sickening. I was at a corporate law firm. My hypothesis is that we have gone back to the mill mentality, where you drive the workers and they are just a resource. People are not at the top for long. A friend of mine became a partner. He said, ‘A third of us are culled every year.’

How Can we Re-Invigorate the Workplace?

Managing by fear may be effective in the short term but it is not sustainable. The best staff quickly leave and gradually those who can follow them. Employees who are left behind are likely to be the least able and the least motivated. If we want to develop healthy, productive workplaces in which employees enjoy working, where they feel stretched and supported in their work, employers need to focus on what makes employees work effectively. We must learn to manage the risks and reduce the fear-factor as best we are able. We need to prepare our organizations so they are ripe for innovation. This means developing cultures that encourage risk-taking and reward courage – cultures that are led from the top and the bottom at the same time.

Example: How a Fruit Bowl Became a Mascot

A colleague told me a story about her organization. It was the thick of the recession and the management was trying to cut back on costs.  One cost that was under review was ‘the fruit bowl’. Each Monday morning, there’d be a large bowl of fruit at reception. It was extravagant and costly, but it embodied the company tradition and employees were very attached to it; they proudly pointed it out to visitors. The fruit bowl was more than a bowl of fruit. It was a company mascot and symbol of the company culture of care, good taste and consideration for its staff.

One Monday, a rumour went around. The fruit bowl had to go. Everyone was upset. Much of the fear and anxiety that had dogged them in the tough years came to be focused on the loss of the fruit bowl. Little work was done that day. Next day, a manager offered an olive branch. 'How about you taking this on,' he said to one of his staff. 'If you can make the savings elsewhere, then the fruit bowl can stay.' The staff set to work. By the end of the day they had found savings that were four times the value of the weekly fruit bowl. There was a huge sense of achievement. Everyone was happy and work resumed as normal. 

We humans like games and we like challenges. Too often these qualities are not brought to the workplace. When they are, they can generate excitement and healthy competitiveness and bring the workforce together.  

Trust as the Bedrock of Organizations

Studies repeatedly emphasize ‘trust’ in the workplace as critical to ensuring a happy and productive workforce. Trust grows from familiarity, working together, taking risks as a community. It may seem counter-intuitive, but placing greater emphasis on ‘human’ values of trust, participation and greater autonomy in the workplace has been shown to promote a happier, more engaged and pro-active workforce. People stay longer, put in more effort and work together more co-operatively. Equally important, productivity increases. This has been shown to hold true even in times of restructuring and redundancies. As the ancient Sufi proverb puts it 'Trust in God…but tie up your camel.'

This is an edited extract from The Psychology of Fear in Organizations: How to transform anxiety into well-being, productivity and innovation, by Sheila Keegan.