This week I’ve had the pleasure of giving ski lessons to the children of some friends of mine; this is something I used to do professionally, but it’s been a while.   Yesterday I skied with two little girls, both of whom were skiing for the second time.  One was confident and had no fear of gravity, and she soared, quickly progressing her terrain from the bunny slope to more challenging runs.  The other was nervous, constantly thinking about the possibility of bodily harm.  She rushed her turns in order to get them over with as soon as possible because gravity was a frightening thing to her, and she stayed stuck in a defensive stance that we call a “wedge” (formerly known as a “snowplow”).  She stayed on the bunny slope most of the day and was not ready to progress, despite having a few extra hours of experience over her friend.

It made me think about the impact of fear on performance.  It’s obvious to most people that fear doesn’t make a person perform better in physical tasks such as sports, but for some reason, we just don’t ever seem to learn this lesson in the workplace.  Sure, most of us know that management by intimidation is not effective, but there are many other types of fear that have equally ineffective consequences and that don’t seem as obvious to many of today’s senior leaders. 

Some examples:

  • After massive layoffs, we don’t bother to spend time with our remaining employees to sure they have the support and the information they need.  We leave them to wonder if they’re next, and to construct an elaborate system of “cover my butt” behaviors and paranoid speculations about who’s next.
  • We hire young new employees, Gen Y’ers who are accustomed to constant feedback, and we leave them completely in the dark as to how they’re doing until a year later when it’s time for a performance appraisal.  When they do something that doesn’t align with our expectations, instead of explaining those expectations we talk about how the young these days ain’t got no respect and we tell them that their behavior is wrong and that it’s ” just common sense” for them to know this.
  • Senior leadership keeps everyone on a “need to know” basis regarding organizational change because we don’t want rumors to spread.  Let’s just let them speculate about what’s coming down the pike next!
  • When our colleagues do something that bothers us, we talk about it to other colleagues at the water cooler but we don’t address it.  We send little hints instead; a scowl, a roll of the eyes, a sarcastic sideways reference. 

There are many different kinds of fear and many different sources for it, but I would put “the unknown” at the top of the list.  The less information we share, the more we make issues undiscussable, the more room we leave for fear to take root and grow within individuals or a team.  And workers who are fearful don’t perform at their best; they withhold information, lack focus, and waste energy on unproductive behaviors that they believe will protect them from whatever is behind the unmarked door.  They certainly don’t act creatively, take risks or go beyond the call of duty.   They stay stuck in a snowplow on the bunny slope.   Is that the kind of employee you want on your team?

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