While vital to company performance, our focus and attention are prone to distraction in today’s workplace. Mobile devices, social media and online shopping during office hours are often cited as culprits. While these diversions are significant, I believe they mask a deeper, unaddressed assault on our attention: fear.
Fear is part of the human experience. While our lives are rarely in jeopardy, wrestling with apprehension and angst is commonplace. I’m afraid of heights and a nervous flyer. I don’t like when my kids ride their bikes too fast. And I worry that delivering tough feedback to a coaching client might jeopardize their business with me.
The dark side of our mind distorts the facts. I’m not actually going to fall off a bridge nor is my plane going to crash. Though frightening, our fears are rarely as dangerous as they appear.
This irrational phenomenon affects us at work when legitimate concerns morph into unwarranted fears. Everyone is susceptible.
We make a mistake or miss a deadline and negative thoughts run rampant. Suddenly, a minor gaffe outweighs years of excellent work and a string of promotions. Adverse scenarios get rolled over in our head. We speculate on what others think and play out a series of uncomfortable conflicts. Fear of a reprimand, public embarrassment or a tarnished reputation can feel almost inevitable to us.
Team members become burdened when indulging this line of thinking. Worry disrupts concentration and raises self-preservation instincts. Suddenly, change looms as a threat. Calculated risks feel like high wire gambles. Micromanaging picks up. Decision-making slows down. Innovating becomes impossible when people are afraid of making a mistake.
In my experience, few employees feel safe enough to discuss these anxieties, preferring to manage them on their own. Thus, workplace fear festers in the dark, toxic to company culture and a drain on performance.
Each of us can help. Vulnerability is a first step. By admitting our own trepidations, leaders can shine a light on fear and weaken its impact. In sessions I conduct on workplace fear, this level of authenticity inspires others to follow. Doubts and troubling thoughts are more easily dismissed when out in the open.
Second, stop trying to solve tomorrow’s problems today. Too often, we whip ourselves into a frenzy considering down-the-road complications that might happen. We guess at who will think what then generate countless contingencies for how to respond. Truth is, these worst-case scenarios rarely come to pass.
While bad at predicting the future, we are accomplished at dealing with the unexpected. We think well on our feet and have a proven track record overcoming obstacles. Rather than waste energy worrying, trust each other’s ability to address future difficulties when they arise.
Lastly, affirm and encourage others. Workplace fear is rooted in uncertainty about one’s standing with company leadership. Are we still valued? Do they trust us? Is our future secure? We all crave validation. Providing regular feedback and encouragement is as important for your top performers as for entry-level staffers. Take an extra moment to remind team members how important they are to the firm.
To manage the focus and attention of your team, work together to minimize distractions, including those lying below the surface. Vulnerability and validation can diffuse the power of fear and enable team members to achieve their potential.
Dave Smith is an Associate with Impact Americas. He's an experienced executive coach and organizational strategist. He provides counsel on progressive organizational methods which spawn innovation and place customer experience at the center of the firm.