Leading in Challenging Times
Managers and leaders need to step up and manage the emotions of their employees. I’ll argue that post Celtic Tiger, we are out of practice with this particular skill, and in fearful times we have to take responsibility for the fear levels in our organisations, making sure people are dealing with the real threats to our business and filtering out the irrelevant and borrowed anxieties coming at people from media and other sources.
Over the last ten years, I’ve worked with over 3,460 people who were afraid to fly. These people willingly stay grounded or take a bus to their holiday destination, even if that means several days of discomfort and significant inconvenience. The reason is fear. Based on the statistics available, a fear of flying is an irrational fear, yet one that affects one in six of us. It’s not the only fear that we are subject to.
Fear for humans is a motivator in small doses but a major disabler when we are constantly bombarded with it. In our day to day work with fearful individuals have gained a fantastic insight into the way otherwise, talented and intelligent people can become useless in the face of fear.
A quick scan through the psychology books and we get all the reasons why and how the human brain when under the control of fear, loses its ability to reason. We go into survival mode, and if the stimulus is strong enough, we shut down and go into shock.
Fear comes in four flavours, real, borrowed, irrational and fear of the unknown. Strangely enough in the face of genuine concern, we as humans are usually excellent, we deal with the challenge and get the shakes later. It is borrowed and irrational fear that catches our interest in the Fearless Organisation. It seems unique to humans to worry about what is yet to happen or doesn’t directly affect us. The zebra being chased across the African Plains will quickly recover should it escape. The human might seek a support group. The zebra would be amused that we use the same chemicals worrying about an overdraft that it uses to save its life.
According to Stanford Professor, Robert Sapolsky, humans are unique in our reactions to stress and fear. The power of thought, the reality of the physical response we have just on thinking or hearing about something stressful and the actual effects these thoughts have on our wellbeing are real and measurable. The Amygdala, the fear centre of the brain can, when engaged turn an otherwise creative individual into a frightened shadow of themselves. The psychological “dis-ease” gets turned into physical disease. Sapolsky goes on to tell us that the management of stress and fear is best carried out by showing care and concern for each other…. there someone goes again with the “soft” stuff.
Back in the early years of history, the estates of the realm were broken into simple levels. These levels gave us social order and in most cases, removed the fear from life for the citizen. The first estate was the clergy; the second estate was made up of the nobility and the politicians; the third estate were the workers that supported the first and second. In the 19th Century, the fourth estate was defined as the media, its role in reporting on the activities of the other three.
Here we are in Ireland in 2019; the first estate the clergy is no longer seen by the majority as a source of leadership, it does not provide the balm that all will be well and the power of prayer is discounted to the point that is gives little comfort to many.
The second estate, the nobility is gone in our Republic, and the beliefs in the abilities of our politicians are also damaged to the point were little comfort or relief is available. Our attention now turns to the fourth estate, the press and the media as we look to talk show hosts and journalists for leadership; instead, we get a regular source of reasons why we should be afraid. Check the headlines on the newspapers and listen to the morning news and you will find a little comfort. In case it seems I am hard on the fourth estate, I am not. They are doing their job, they report on the activities of the other estates, and they profess no competence in problem-solving. Our insistence in seeking leadership from the media will only result in us maintaining a level of frustration and anxiety that keeps us afraid.
Energetic, resilient individuals with high levels of emotional intelligence will be able to filter the messages they hear every day. Employees and staff who are less resistant and already under stress are not and in turn, they become even more anxious in the absence of leadership. The role of the leader is to do the worrying so others can get on with the work.
Step up the employer or manager. Help the employee to filter out the unnecessary stimulus of fear going on around them. Why? Well, if they are afraid they start to make poor decisions, they limit their thinking and creativity goes out the window. Now more than ever, we need to use our communications skills.
Here’s the problem, just how competent are leaders and managers at managing the emotions of others. Many years ago, we delegated the “soft skills” to the friendly people in HR. We developed contempt for interpersonal skills as indeed being soft and the polar opposite of good leadership. We as managers dabbled with Emotional Intelligence in the ’90s, but it made some managers edgy in that it insisted we look at our ability to recognise the emotions in others and ourselves and do something with that insight.
The challenge then is thrown down, as a manager and leader are you taking responsibility for the fear levels on those around you. Some proper old-fashioned morale management, mustering the troops and providing direction is required. In case you think this is “soft” this leadership skill is precisely that which a group of soldiers will get from their Sergeant or commander.
A word of caution, before you can manage the emotions and fear in others, you better get your own “ducks in a row”. Tap into your emotional intelligence; enhance your reality testing skills, look to your stress tolerance, your flexibility and your problem-solving skills. Develop your self-awareness and recognise when you, too, are succumbing to the fearful messages around you. What about some practical tips for managing fear and stress in others? Well, we can start by insisting that people around us manage their anxiety and fear. Watch out for people who are though doubt bringing back poor work practices and who ease their stress by passing it on to others. Watch out for line managers and supervisors that displace pressure on to subordinates.
Your role as a leader is to manage perspective. Keep it real; people can manage real threats they don’t do so well managing imagined ones. Somewhere in the mists of time, managers got the idea that people should be kept on their toes, don’t let them get too comfortable and whatever you do, don’t get emotional. Times have changed. Radio programmes and newspapers, troubled relatives and neighbours are keeping your people on their toes already. When they come into work they need to have clarity from you as to what they should be doing and that they have your support and the surprising things is given that clarity and support, they will deliver.