Thom Dennis, Founder of Serenity in Leadership, a culture change consultancy, explores the meaning of fear in a workplace context, including why it can be a dangerous barrier to inclusion.
Fear at work comes in many forms. External forces that are out of our control like the pandemic give rise to fear and force change upon us because we are living in a VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous) world.
Fear in the business world
Internal fear forces at work may arise from unfair treatment, anxiety about job security, or fear from bullying and harassment. Whilst we can’t control many external forces, leaders can eliminate fear within the business because fear stops inclusion, and a lack of inclusion generates fear, but how does this cycle develop in the workplace, and how do we break it?
Fear is often systemic. The less diverse the business, the more likely the problem is systemic. Making employees fearful of losing their job keeps them vulnerable and easy to manipulate. Fear that is felt collectively within the workplace, is harder to alleviate. The more fear there is in a business, the more likely it is that people who don’t ‘fit the mould’ will be excluded.
We fear those who are ‘different’. We are consciously or unconsciously fearful of people who are different to us. Some of us are afraid of saying the wrong thing or simply not knowing what to say in the first place so we keep them at arm’s length, as is often felt by workers with disability, indeed all minority groups.
Hoping for the best isn’t going to work. Whilst some leaders are given budgets to support inclusion, and we know that diversity makes us smarter and changes the way we think, this will simply never be enough to break the mould and create real change.
Fear generates opportunities for bullying. Fear is highly effective as a means to exert control over others. Bullying and harassment are still rife in the workplace and through intimidation and exclusion tactics, bullies disempower victims and also coerce others into enabling fear. Cultures characterised by bullying are neither cost-effective nor productive ones.
Fear-based management. Fear-based managers are obsessed with the rules, punishments, and structure. They use exclusion techniques to maintain control and cling to power through fear. They are frequently insecure about their own position and enjoy power games to divert from their own ineptitude.
How to eliminate fear and build inclusion
- Shift from ‘I’ to ‘we’ – Dominating opinions mean silent voices, so you lose the benefits of diversity. Instead, welcome different opinions and harness the collective intelligence of the entire team for better results. You will go further together.
- Avoid groupthink – Don’t go with the consensus. Encourage disagreement by listening, calling for input from everyone and creating transparent processes. That doesn’t mean you should create a tug of war of ideas. Instead, be open to other’s ideas and offer co-responsibility and co-accountability for actions taken as a team.
- Change the culture – To effectively focus on changing culture and behaviour, don’t be derailed if things don’t go according to plan immediately. In every change programme you will need to go backwards and forwards. Be prepared to unlearn what you have learnt and to relearn new habits – this takes time, education and commitment. Minorites don’t need fixing, it’s the attitudes towards them that need attention. Blocks, poor systems and processes, and toxic individuals need removing.
- Put everything you have behind effective change – Leaders are pivotal in ensuring diversity and inclusivity and need truly to believe in the value of D&I and do all they can to achieve and support it, including creating significant budget. Ensure you have people who influence positively on the change programme and that the change panel are diverse themselves.
- Hold effective meetings – Preferably around a round table to avoid a visual hierarchy and call out interruptions if they arise. Research shows that men are three times more likely to interrupt women in meetings. As a preventative measure, leaders should name this unacceptable behaviour before the meeting starts. Practise collaborative behaviour by enabling everyone to state issues respectively, question if you think there is a misunderstanding and take turns.
- Commitment, not compliance -Training, groups discussion and real action are needed to raise awareness and for deep understanding. Compliance won’t be nearly as effective as commitment.
- Avoid meritocracy – Because merit is in the eye of the beholder. Don’t reward individual behaviour if you want a collective result. Systems and processes are needed, but so is collaboration.
- Recognise your bias – We all have biases, but we need to recognise and accept they exist. Just because you have a daughter doesn’t mean you don’t unconsciously have a prejudice towards women. Take a step back to see what your actions say, test your ideas with a coach.
- Handle bullying properly – How a business handles bullying reveals how they feel about diversity and inclusion as well. Active, genuine inclusion is the single most effective way of eliminating dysfunctional behaviour. The importance of belonging and connection have never been more important.
- Speak to people – Be curious and engage in courageous conversations. Listen to other people and come without judgement. These conversations may not always be comfortable, building psychological safety often isn’t, however, it is incredibly powerful.
- Role model the right behaviours – Call out the wrong ones while listening to what others say and paying attention to what isn’t being said and the conversations that are being avoided are key to inclusion and reducing fear. If you feel that these avoidances are deliberate, raise them with leaders, who themselves should strive against a blame-based culture.
- Minorities require support and engagement – Anyone in a minority might need time to find their voice but it is vital they are given those opportunities. Don’t rely on them to lead the change or fix the problem or put them on a committee or interviewing panel just for the sake of it. The whole panel has to be on board with reducing fear, and supporting and building D&I. Remember minorities aren’t the problem, it’s the attitude towards them that’s the problem.
- Leaders should evaluate systemic problems – Leaders shouldn’t be afraid of the evaluation of their systems and processes and shouldn’t do it as a tick box exercise. Data may be different between groups, countries or departments so collect and evaluate separately. Ask for regular updates on D&I and test to see how it is helping or hindering strategy. Know what the gender and minorities pay gaps are and where in the hierarchy the D&I talent starts to decline.
- Diversity means different reward centres, beliefs and experience – Find out what your people need think and want and they will be sure to feel included.
Thom Dennis is an accomplished facilitator, coach, and NED speaker who has been at the cutting edge of new thinking, leadership development, and culture change for over 29 years. He is focused on bringing enlightened practices to senior leaders around issues of inclusion, diversity, harassment and the use of power.