Corporate leaders who promote emotional engagement, collaboration and intelligent decision-making among employees see positive results.

Five Mistakes Leaders Unknowingly Make That Scare Employees

May 2, 2013
Without even realizing it, most leaders do and say things that cause employees to make decisions based on fear. Christine Comaford 
reveals some of the subtle, yet damaging mistakes we make and how to fix them.

Most leaders know that command and control is dead and that fear doesn’t motivate employees. Quite the opposite is true. Only the worst “bully bosses” make it a practice to scream at an employee, or call him abusive names or threaten to fire him for minor mistakes. Yet according to Christine Comaford, even good leaders unintentionally strike fear in the hearts of their work force.

“From time to time, we all say or do things that spark unconscious fears in our employees,” says Comaford, author of the new book SmartTribes: How Teams Become Brilliant Together “The primitive ‘fight, flight or freeze’ part of the brain takes control. When that happens, when people are stuck in what I call the Critter State, all they can focus on is their own survival.”

In other words, everything that makes them good employees – their ability to innovate, to collaborate, to logically think through problems – goes out the window. All decision-making is distilled down to one question: What course of action will keep me safest?

Corporate leaders who promote emotional engagement and intelligent decision-making among employees see results, said Comaford. “I regularly see clients who master these techniques and quickly see their revenues and profits increase by up to 200 percent annually,” she notes. “It just goes to show how pervasive fear in the workplace actually is, and how crippling it can be.”

So how are we inadvertently holding back our teams and crippling our own cultures? Comaford describes a few (very subtle) offenders:

You “help” employees by giving them solutions. Or, in Comaford’s words, you advocate when you should be inquiring. When we consistently tell people what to do instead of encouraging them to figure things out on their own, we develop a company full of order-takers instead of innovators.

On the other hand, when we engage employees in solving problems themselves, we create a sense of safety, belonging and mattering, which Comaford says are the three things humans crave most (after basic needs like food and shelter are met). And of course, we help them develop a sense of ownership that will serve them – and the company – well.

“Start inquiring and see what happens,” suggests Comaford. “Ask, ‘How would you do it? What impact might your course of action have?’ After you do this a few times with someone, she’ll start expecting you to ask questions instead of give orders. She’ll start coming to you with ideas, seeking feedback and validation. And after a few of these sessions, she’ll come to you saying, ‘I have a plan, here it is, and speak now if you aren’t okay with it.’ Finally, she’ll stop coming to you altogether.

Your meetings are heavy on sharing and point-proving, light on promises and requests. Why might a meeting scare your employees? Because confusion and uncertainty create fear, says Comaford. Meetings that are rambling and unfocused send people into the fight-flight-freeze of the Critter State. On the other hand, short, sweet, high-energy meetings that have a clear agenda keep everyone in their Smart State.

Ideally, you should focus on only enough information-sharing in order to solicit requests from parties who need something and promises from parties who will fill that need. “Tune up your communication and the result will be meetings that are efficient and effective, and that keep your team happy and clipping along to glorious accountability and execution,” promises Comaford.

You give feedback to employees without first establishing rapport. Imagine for a moment that your employees are antelopes. Because you have authority over them, they quite naturally view you as a lion. Unless you can get employees to see you as “just another antelope,” you won’t be able to influence them; they’ll be too busy ensuring their own survival to accept your feedback.

Comaford offers three “shortcut” phrases that help people feel safe:

  1. “What if…”: When you use this preface to an idea/suggestion, you remove ego and reduce emotion. You’re curious and not forcing a position.
  2. “I need your help.”: We call this a dom-sub swap, because when the dominant person uses it, they are enrolling the subordinate person and asking them to rise up and swap roles. This is an especially effective phrase when you want a person to change their behavior or take on more responsibility.
  3. “Would it be helpful if…”: When someone is unable to move forward, offer a solution that will help them see a possible course of action or positive outcome.

You focus on problems rather than outcomes. According to Comaford, there are three default roles that people lean toward: victim, rescuer or persecutor. “Together these roles make up the Tension Triangle and when we’re in it, we’re problem-focused,” explains Comaford. “We see everything as a problem, which causes anxiety, which leads to a reaction, which leads to another problem. It’s a self-perpetuating cycle. The solution is to switch your focus from problems to outcomes. Instead of asking ‘What’s wrong?’ and ‘Why is this happening?’ we ask ‘What do we want?’ and ‘How will we create it?’”

Being outcome focused feels very different, she explains. It’s empowering and energizing and fills you with confidence.

You frame "change" the wrong way. Almost all leaders want and need their companies to change. It's the only way to achieve growth and success. Yet, most people inherently resist change. Leaders need to present change as an improvement to what already is being done, said Comaford. Bad stuff is being removed and good stuff is being added.

"Seriously, this is the best way to package a change message," she said. "And don't use the C-word. Say 'growth' instead."

Comaford adds that resistance is not necessarily a bad thing. She claims it is the first step on the organizational path to change.

“Most of us have teams that are quite capable of doing so. We just need to stop scaring the competence out of them,” said Comaford.

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