We all know that fear can get stuff done. If stress levels are amped up sufficiently, people can do some crazy things for short periods of time. We’ve all heard the story of the mom who lifts a Pontiac off a trapped family member. Marketers have long known the power of fear, using it to sell everything from life insurance to alarm systems to fiber cereals that taste like tree bark and feet.
A degree of fear in our workplaces is unavoidable with this pandemic and economic downturn. But it’s important for leaders to recognize that fear at work can cause a host of ill effects that undermine the quality of people’s output as well as overall team performance. At the heart of fear is doubt, and uncertainty can kill motivation, not to mention innovation.
When faced with a threat—real or imagined—the brain’s amygdala sends out a distress signal, prompting the release of stress hormones, which cause a number of physiological changes, such as increased heartbeat, quickened breathing, and muscle tensing. This reaction is designed as a boon in response to immediate threats, giving us a surge of energy and enhancing our strength. Shazam! But all that is intended as a temporary response to danger, not as a prolonged state of being. If this pandemic worry stretches into weeks and months, it will sap energy. Chronic stress like that can also seriously undermine the quality of people’s sleep, further undercutting their energy. Fear-induced stress is a major factor in burnout.
Getting people into a fight mode during a crisis might sound okay to some leaders—“They’ll be charged up to tackle this challenge!” What they need to understand is a fighting spirit, when evoked by fear rather than inspiration and a sense of purpose, actually can end up aimed right back against their managers instead of the challenges to be tackled. Never underestimate the degree of bald-faced contempt that people let brew in response to the perception that a manager isn’t doing all he/she can to solve the problems that are causing them to freak out (even if the manager has little to no control over them).
In short, few things in a crisis are worse than key stakeholders perceiving leadership to be in disarray, indecisive, or indifferent. It is the very moment of crisis when the organization needs its people to believe the most, yet their faith is often challenged.
What to do as leaders? Here are just a few tactics that can help.
Create a Safe Place: One sure-fire way to help reduce fear starts with frequently and honestly framing the market situation in real terms that people can relate to. Leaders must explain in clear terms what behaviors employees must focus their efforts on, all while creating a reassuringly safe environment to keep delivering to clients. During our interviews with leaders who successfully led their teams through the last global crisis, they displayed a dogged commitment to their mission and core values. Employees we interviewed after told us things such as, “He forced us to keep thinking about our mission, and how we were helping make the world a better place,” or “She reminded us that real people were using our products; they had to be perfect every time.”
Leave the Pillows at Home. During tough times, it’s more important than ever to be more honest and more transparent. In other words: Don’t soften the blow. Let people know what’s up with the business in clear ways and communicate with them every day, even if there’s not much to share. Part of this concept means you’ll need to admit you need employee help and ideas to get through this. After all, you don’t have all the ingenuity or improvement ideas in your head, so let your people know you want to hear their input. Encourage debate on ways to improve service or find new business or enhance processes, even if it rattles established harmony. When employees know their managers are seeking better ways during tough times, and are encouraging them to practice the same, it builds trust and a larger culture of optimism.
Amp up Gratitude. It is in the worst of times that leaders must amp up praise and recognition of every step forward. In the organizations we studied that made it through the Great Recession in the best shape, there was a statistically significantly higher preponderance of gratitude of employee efforts than in those organizations that achieved average or poor returns. The seemingly warm and fuzzy skill of thanking people for the value they bring creates tangible feelings of hope and points people toward the right behaviors.
Manage to Motivators. Every person on this planet has a thumbprint-like makeup of what makes him or her most engaged at work and those prints vary considerably. During this stressful time, one of the most powerful ways to engage people is to align (as much as possible) assignments with a person’s specific motivations and uncover subtle changes that can lead to increases in team morale, engagement, and results. The problem is, very few managers know what’s really motivating to their people or, if they do, how to apply that information to day-to-day work. The best leaders have discovered that the surest way to help their employees be more productive in challenging times is to do some sculpting of the nature of jobs or tasks to better match duties with passions.
Adrian Gostick and Chester Elton are the New York Times bestselling authors of Leading with Gratitude, The Carrot Principle and All In. They own the global training company The Culture Works and work with organizations around the world to address employee engagement issues. Learn more at TheCultureWorks.com.