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Business Insight: How not to scare your employees to death

Author proposes positive steps to make work environment less frightening.

First Published Jun 26 2013 09:19 am • Last Updated Dec 07 2013 11:34 pm

Christine Comaford, a leadership and culture coach and author of SmartTribes: How Teams Become Brilliant Together, says even good leaders can unintentionally strike fear in the hearts of their workforce.

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What do leaders do that sparks unconscious fears in employees?

I could give you a big list of things that send employees into the survival-focused fight-flight-freeze part of their brains — what I call their"Critter State." They include unrealistic deadlines, lack of transparency, intolerance for failure and more. To me, though, the most interesting mistakes are those that leaders have no idea they’re making. For example, unclear directives scare people, because uncertainty always makes us anxious. Inconsistency is another culprit — such as when you hold different people to different standards or share information sometimes but not always. These things keep people off-balance. When you’re the boss, employees see you as having power over them. So, you must deliberately do and say things that show you are the same as them and part of the team — this gets people in their "Smart State," where emotional engagement and creativity thrive.

What’s wrong with leaders laying out solutions?

When we consistently tell people what to do instead of encouraging them to figure things out, we create order takers instead of innovators. By training them to always ask, we end up with a workforce of employees perpetually frozen in their Critter State. When we engage them in solving problems, we create a sense of safety, belonging, and mattering, which are the three things humans crave most (after basic needs are met). It’s like we’re saying, "I trust you to come up with answers on your own. It’s safe to take a risk. And by the way, your ideas and opinions matter here." Try to cut back on advocating (telling people what to do) and increase inquiring (asking, "How would you do it?"). Aim for five inquiries per advocacy. This is a small shift that can really boost leadership.

Why might a meeting scare employees?

Meetings that are rambling and unfocused send people into their Critter State. When they’re not clear on what to do, they wonder, "Am I going to screw up and get in trouble?" Better meetings start with knowing the five types of communication — information sharing; sharing of oneself; debating, decision-making or point-proving; requests; and promises. Most meetings are heavy on the first three and light on the last two. Yours should have just enough information sharing to solicit requests from parties who need something and promises from parties who will fill that need. Make this change, and you’ll see a big jump in accountability and execution.


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How can leaders establish rapport?

Remember what I said about the leader being perceived as equal to the team? When you give sensitive feedback, employees may be too busy trying to survive or stay safe to accept your feedback. To truly influence, you must first establish rapport. Here are a few tips:

What if • When you use this preface to an idea or suggestion, you remove ego and reduce emotion. You’re curious — not forcing a position, but kind of scratching your head and pondering. This enables someone to brainstorm more easily with you.

I need your help • We call this a dom-sub swap, because when the dominant person uses it, he or she is enrolling the subordinate person and asking that person to rise up and swap roles.

Would it be helpful if • When someone is stuck in their Critter State and spinning or unable to move forward, offering up a solution will help them see a possible course of action or positive outcome.

— Dawn House



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