Less Fear, Fewer Turtles


Is our workplace a comfortable place to be or is it a place where we dread arriving every day? If we don’t look forward to being at work, why not?

The most pervasive emotion that will detract from us having a pleasant experience at work is fear. We might not want to admit it and we almost never acknowledge it, but that is what makes it so sinister. If we think about it, fear drives almost everything we do.

To Motivate or Inspire?
Two commonly confused leadership practices are motivation and inspiration. They seem similar at first glance, but almost anybody would say that they would rather be inspired than motivated. When asked why, people say that the major distinction between the two is that inspiration is based in positive “internal” feelings like desire, excitement and admiration, while motivation seems to be based on “external” stimuli imposed on us. We could make an even stronger statement—all motivation is based on fear.

Resultantly, as well-intentioned as an offer of a bonus for better performance may be, (and it usually does result in better performance, thus allegedly proving its worth), there is an underlying assumption that most people want more money. Why? They are afraid of not having enough money. If this fear wasn’t there, the motivation would not have the same effect. Other forms of motivation similarly depend on some fear being present, and misguided managers take advantage of this fear, all in the name of “improving performance.”

Fear in a Finite World
So, what else are we afraid of and what causes the fear? One of the biggest causes is, as discussed in the previous PeopleTalk article “From Scarcity to Abundance: Leading the Mindset Shift,” the fear that there isn’t enough “good stuff” to go around. Fearing that there only a finite quantity of pay raises, praise, acknowledgement, jobs and recognition leads us to believe that we must be guarded and protect ourselves from our coworkers, rather than collaborate with them. In other words, “Whatever they gain, I lose.”

In Brene Brown’s book, Daring Greatly, she describes this fear as scarcity, which comes from three causes. The first is the common practice of using shame and finger pointing causes people to behave in such a way to avoid blame when things go wrong. Worse, people won’t take risks and do new innovative things for fear of making a mistake.

Second, there is very often an undocumented, but pervasive and well understood, code of performance by which everybody is informally measured. Individuality is not encouraged, but “towing the company line” is subtly endorsed.

Third, and perhaps the most sinister, is the tendency to withdraw when it seems dangerous to do anything new or risky or to even speak up with a suggestion. This has been widely described in terms of “disengagement,” but I am going to use the term “turtle.”

The Trouble with Turtles
In these days of global turbulence and uncertain economic conditions, there is an abundance of external environmental factors that can incite a fear response; herein lies the temptation to do what a turtle does when faced with what it perceives to be a danger.

We symbolically pull in our head, arms and legs, not only to protect ourselves, but also to make ourselves disappear so we can continue to exist without drawing further attention to ourselves. In this mode, we have very little trust in ourselves and in our environment. The reality is that such turtle tactics do not serve us or the greater goals of any particular organization well at all. After all, what can a tucked-in turtle really do? Unfortunately, the truth is, a “frozen” turtle can be a definite obstacle where team building is concerned.

Of Apathy and Innovation
This shows up in various ways, all of which detract from the efficient and pleasant operation of the enterprise. As people withdraw more and more, there is very little camaraderie and collaboration among co-workers. Social activities become scarce and, even when they are structured and organized, there is a palpable feeling of obligation to participate rather than willingness or desire.

More troublingly, innovation becomes almost non-existent. Innovation requires different points of view, differences of opinion, and possibly, heaven forbid, arguments. If people have turtled, they feel threatened by new ideas due to their fear about not enough recognition to go around, and even worse, they simply don’t care. The level of apathy becomes suffocating. Nobody responds to anything and leadership is perceived to be not listening or unwilling to accommodate anything that staff suggests.

Escaping the “Shell” Game
Leadership at all levels can do many things to great reduce the level of fear in the organization. Being as generous as possible with public recognition and tangible rewards for achievements that are consistent with the stated, known and accepted objectives of the organization has huge leverage in helping people understand that there is indeed enough recognition to go around. This lessens the fear. This also shows everybody what kind of behaviour and achievement gets rewarded so they can be more confident that what they are doing is acceptable. Again, less fear.

Distrust is at the core of most fearful situations, so anything that leadership does to enhance the level of trust in the organization will encourage people to “come out of their shell” and participate in whatever way they feel is appropriate to their level of satisfaction, comfort, personal success and the success of the group as a whole.

Doug Turner, MSc, MBA is a leadership and executive coach at True Balance Coaching.

(PeopleTalk Spring 2018)

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