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Transform Fear into Productivity and Innovation

6th January 2015 | Sheila Keegan

The Psychology of Fear in Organizations (9780749472542)

1. What do you mean by the Psychology of Fear?

By ‘the psychology of fear’, I mean the whole gamut of emotions that surround the topic of ‘Fear’. For instance, we are likely to be fearful in dangerous situations, such as being stalked along a dark street. This is quite normal. In this context fear acts as a protective device. It helps us stay safe.  However, we may also be fearful in situations which are not actually threatening. We may be scared of spiders, of open spaces, of speaking in public. These are not physically dangerous situations but they feel as if they are. Fear influences us in all sorts of ways in everyday life and often in very many different ways. It shapes our behaviours, for better or worse.  Although we may try hard to avoid feeling fear, it is often difficult to shake off.  It makes us feel is uncomfortable or inadequate. We may associate it with childish behaviour, as in “grown men and women don’t show fear”. Fear at work is often a taboo; it implies weakness. 

However, fear is also our friend. The feeling of fear is often a warning sign. We may feel fear even before we see the danger because our instincts alert us to the fact that something is wrong. And then there is the situation of “feel the fear and do it anyway”. Conquering our fear can lead to a sense of achievement. We have challenged fear and won. Equally, in times of extreme stress, fear can drive us to super-human feats.  For instance, individuals have been known to lift superhuman loads when in a state of fear, such as rescuing an individual trapped under a car. It is a fascinating emotion. Although we tend to think of it as a negative emotion, it is actually complex and multi-faceted. Historically, we would not have survived as a species without the emotion of fear.

2. What are the effects of fear in the workplace?

People adopt a range of strategies in fear-ridden organizations. They may hide, either physically or metaphorically, so they are never put on the spot, so that they are not ‘picked out’. They may work to rule, doing precisely what is written down in their work specification, but no more. They may be a maverick, so that they deliberately sabotage the organization in some way, but do it in such a way that they cannot be caught out. Human beings are amazingly inventive; we can find all sorts of ways of sabotaging work environments without getting caught out. However, where that energy can be put to better use, for the benefit of both employees and managers, it can be a win-win situation.

3. How can we recognise fear in organizations?

Many factors such as fear of redundancy, job insecurity, overwork, low wages, organizational structures, management styles, bullying and threats, short-term contracts and many more create fear in workplaces. Fear may be pervasive, but never spoken. Chris Welford of Sixth Sense Consulting identifies five tell-tale signs of a fear based culture:

  • There is a preoccupation with status and conformity where rules have precedence over common sense
  • Distinct groups exist and there is little opportunity to cross the boundaries between them
  • Everything is measured and but nothing is questioned
  • Appraisals are only ever one way
  • Short-term gain is known to be at the long-term cost

4. What’s the best way to create psychologically healthy organizations?

This is a small question with a big answer. It involves developing an understanding of what makes people want to work. This will naturally vary between individuals and organizations. Essentially humans are group animals. We enjoy creating things together. The sense of achievement, of joint enterprise, of reward for a job well done is a very strong motivation. The over-emphasis on performance targets, a climate of threat and fear often undermines our sense of personal achievement. There is a great difference between feeling stressed because you really want to do a good job, for your own satisfaction and to support your work colleagues and the company you work for, and feeling stressed because you are fearful that if you do not deliver you will be punished in some way. In the long-term, success comes through the desire to achieve.

Developing a psychologically healthy workplace is about cultivating a culture which fosters human values; that harnesses our genetically driven desire to work, to achieve, to be part of a team of people who have a common goal.  In a sense this goes back to the days of Abraham Maslow, who created the concept of a ‘hierarchy of needs’ in the 1950s. We have made management theory much more complicated since those times, but the essential truths remain. We need to work. Most of us want to work. It is the responsibility of all employees in organizations, but especially senior management to create the environment in which we can both work co-operatively and productively.

5. What are your top tips for transforming fear into productivity and innovation?

It is not so much about ‘tips’, as it is about developing relationships and about culture change, neither of which are quick or easy to achieve.  Indeed complexity scientists tend to believe that we cannot change cultures; there are too many factors involved, many of which we do not understand and cannot control. Situations ‘emerge’ and the best we can do is ‘go with the flow’. Even in healthy organizations, culture need to be observed so that, even if we cannot change the culture, we have some awareness of changes that are emerging. Reducing fear in organizations and increasing productivity and innovation is a goal worth chasing, even if we cannot totally succeed. Success within organizations generally boils down to communication, empathy and engagement. Essentially we are talking about re-humanising the workplace; treating employees as human beings rather than just resources to be milked – thinking about and talking with employees – and putting ourselves in their shoes.

6. What motivated you to write this book?

I am a Chartered Psychologist and I have worked in the area of organizational change and research and for many years.  I have been interested in how organizations ‘work’ since I was a psychology undergraduate and discovered the ‘Hawthorne’ experiments. If you are not familiar with these studies, it is well worth digging them out. These experiments were carried out in the 1920s and they changed the way in which we understand how people respond in particular work contexts. At that time researchers concentrated on factory production lines. To give a very brief summary of the experiments: The researchers wanted to find out if an increase of lighting in the factory increased productivity, so they raised the level of lighting. They were not surprised to find that this did increase productivity. To be thorough, they experimented with decreasing the light levels. They assumed that lowering the light would reduce productivity. To their surprise they discovered that less light also increased productivity. Why do you think this happened? It was quite a conundrum and it was a puzzle that obsessed psychologists for many decades. In particular, these studies highlighted the complexity of human beings. We are not purely rational and logical. We are a cocktail of intuition, habit, curiosity, nostalgia. We ‘catch’ emotion, we are irrational, conflicted and so much more. 

I have written papers, articles, blogs and given papers on organizational topics over the years and I have been interested in the area of fear in organizations for a long time. Mainly this is because, when I interview employees, I am often shocked by the way in which they have been treated in their organizations. I have found myself asking, “Why is this happening?” I decided to write this book because I wanted to put together my thoughts, ideas, and my experiences over the years. Writing is also a good excuse to explore other people’s thinking more thoroughly and, importantly, to start looking at how we can improve the ways in which organizations operate, both in terms of employee engagement and satisfaction and, equally importantly, in terms of corporate profitability.  

Early-bird offer: Save 20% when you pre-order The Psychology of Fear in Organizations. Use discount code PFOB20 when prompted at the checkout.

 


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