Fear can be a pretty powerful motivator, but it can also be destructive. Yes, today’s unemployment figures can make every day at the office feel like a cliff-hanger, but the reality is that fear exists in the good times as well as the bad. As human beings, we want to do a good job and we’re essential afraid of doing badly. Afraid of losing our jobs, being demoted, or just disappointing the boss.
Consider this anecdote from on where fear can lead in a workplace at Portfolio.com
Back in the mid-’90s, when Nick Leeson was the general manager of the Singapore office of a British investment bank called Barings, one of his underlings made an error that cost the company $30,000. Leeson decided not to report it. He tried to hide the loss in a secret account instead. He figured he could make up the difference with a little trading of his own. He bet that the Nikkei would go down; it went up. He bet that Japanese government bonds would go up; they went down. Playing double or nothing time and again, Leeson compounded his predicament—raising the deficit from $30K to $30 million to $200 million. He ultimately rolled up $1.3 billion in losses, driving Barings out of business.
The first, and most obvious lesson here is that transparency is always key. In other words, don’t lie. That may seem like a simple almost childish rule, but it’s essential. Leeson was trying to hide a mistake and ended up making the situation worse. If he had come clean, the situation would have been much better for him and for his company.
But the story raises some important questions. Why was his fear so great that he couldn’t come clean about the mistake? Ultimately, we don’t know what forces were at work here, but clearly this is a situation to guard against as both an employee and employer. Here are 4 ways to deal with fear at work and move on:
1.) Tell the Truth but Present a Solution
Technically Leeson skipped the first part of this and went, not so successfully, to the second. It’s important to get the order right. Most companies hire people not to be perfect, but to be human. And human’s are pretty good at correcting mistakes, solving problems, and getting ourselves out of the messes we got into. Coming clean with a mistake, accepting responsibility, and presenting a solution shows your true value to an organization.
2.) Manage Expectations
This doesn’t mean lowering your standards, but it does mean laying out realistic scenerios for success and failure. Make sure that your boss understands and agrees with your plan of attack and understands the possible downsides. Don’t ever expect a boss to be ‘OK’ with failure, but do lay out the possibility of it happening.
3.) Don’t Let Fear Be Your Primary Motivator
Fear can be a terrific motivator if you’re running from a tiger. But it’s probably not a great way of driving success in the workplace. As the example above proves, fear of a modest failure can lead to something catastrophic. Fear as a motivator just leads to some poor choices and ultimately escalates. Success as a motivator ususally involved short and long term goals, acheivement, and celebration.
4.) Take a Breath, Excercise, Spend Time with Your Family
In other words, relax a little. Most of us say that these things are important, but we seldom truly invest in them. Stepping a way from an issue at work, even for an hour, can help bring clarity to a situation and put it into context. Most of us are not making life and death decisions at work and most problems can be solved. Put problems into context. They will still be problems, but you won’t feel like a tiger is nipping at your heels.
5.) For Bosses Only: Creating an Atmosphere of Fear is Counterproductive
While having a hard line policy of no toleration for mistakes may seem like a viable leadership technique, it can leave you vulnerable to lower productivity, high turnaround rates, and a non-transparent culture at work. It your job to lead and motivate employees, not tally and judge their mistakes. Why was the mistake made? How are we going to fix it? What can be learned from it? These are helpful questions that, when answered, will help employees grow.