THE BLOG
11/20/2014 01:20 pm ET Updated Jan 20, 2015

Could You Pass the Gravy? Fear and Anxiety in the 2014 Workplace

By: Jim Finkelstein, Sheila Repeta and Molly Gauss of FutureSense, Inc.

With the holidays looming, many of us are preparing for a month of dinners with friends and family. As we enter into the season, we optimistically await these meals. But we've all been there -- one wrong word, a funny look, or the murmured political statement slips out -- it's no longer smiles and fun. Tension, agitation and awkward looks replace the smiles, stories and laughter. And yet it's not the holiday dinner table that is relegated to this experience.

In the late 2000's many high performing and culturally stable organizations felt the same "holiday dinner table" experience and succumbed to the pressure of the "Great Recession" and took necessary and/or preventative measures to weather the financial apocalypse unraveling before them. Oftentimes this meant operating lean through budget cutbacks, minimal staffing and layoffs, etc.

And just like that, a sudden crisis leveled many stable cultures bringing them to their knees through two simple emotions -- fear and anxiety. Employees who survived the fiscal firestorm were happy to find themselves still employed in the workplace found themselves looking over their shoulders wondering what could be coming and employing a new modus operandi. The stable, strong culture eroded with the infusion of fear in the business reality.

We know the data. Most of the workforce is not and has never been fully engaged. And why are they disenchanted? Or better yet why can't we engage them? Maybe it is because we constantly talk about culling the herd, shedding the skin and other descriptive terms for downsizing, rightsizing, outsourcing, resourcing. All have the same effect. They send shudders through a workforce.

Is fear subtly infused in your organization's culture? HuffPost blogger David Peck shares five signs of workplace fear and stress that are often overlooked. Included in this list are:

• Only hearing good news from your employees
• Employees not challenging one another
• Having employees that show up as "yes men" (or women) in the workplace

And now our economy still wrestles with the "R" word -- recovery. What happened in a narrow window of time to instill the fear into organizational cultures is taking years to recover. If you think that fear is still permeating your culture, there are some things you can do to address it.

Ways that organizations can overcome fear in the workplace and create a fear-free culture:

1) Be transparent. Studies have shown that when employees do not know the answer to a question -- "Is there another round of layoffs?" "Will we be relocating headquarters to a more affordable location?" -- they will fill it in with the worst-case scenario. Giving employees access to as much information as possible as early as possible will help to mitigate fear as it will promote trust and openness so the fear of the blindside erodes.

2) Be vulnerably transparent. In the spirit of transparency, there are often times leaders do not know the answers to the questions employees have. To save face, leaders often avoid the topic entirely. To openly admit, "I do not know" goes a long way in building trust with employees.

3) Increase and model self-awareness and emotional intelligence. It is very easy for fear to take over employee's emotions. We must have self-awareness about who we are in the workplace and what we are feeling. When we take time to notice what thoughts are occurring and recognize how this may affect our actions, we are able to handle our fears with control. They are then less likely to completely take over our behavior.

4) Dialogue. If a leader finds his/her staff stuck in "yes" mode out of fear, create opportunities for staff to talk openly about what is going well and what needs to be done better. Host plus/delta meetings where employees discuss the opportunities to change processes, procedures and policies that will make the workplace more efficient. Create safe spaces for employees to debate and/or dialogue options and opportunities that are out there.

5)Encourage discussion about fear. We must take time to acknowledge, recognize and voice our fears. It is helpful to gain perspective from other people. This will help re-frame our fear from a difference viewpoint and realize our fear may not be as scary as it seems.

Be the Change -- Creating a Culture Free of Fear

As our organizations face increased competition for market share and brand recognition, we often look to develop the "secret sauce" -- culture. And nothing kills culture faster than fear.

Fear potentially creeps in when employees try something new, worry about failure, experience conflict with coworkers, rejection of ideas, or even when they are just feeling stuck. As important as it is to have operations running as effectively and efficiently as possible, we also must have employees working in a culture free of fear.

We must understand the types of fear before we can work on creating a fear-free culture.

Fear of the Future

Fearful questions arise in the workplace. Will my performance meet my supervisor's expectations or will I get a poor performance review and lose my job? Will my new colleagues like me, and will our team work well together, or will there be mistrust and dislike? Will I get the raise that I need to pay my rent increase?

We must recognize that all of these are thoughts of what may or may not happen. A manager who shows up as controlling and giving detailed input on every decision is often driven by the unknown -- that things will go exactly as he/she plans. This fear of the unknown typically leads to a culture of distrust and micromanagement.

Fear in the Past

Have you ever worked with someone who can't let go of what happened a year ago? I have, and it affected our team's culture because we kept re-living what didn't go right rather than focus on learning from our mistakes. This mentality is draining to be around and takes away from a team's innovation and excitement. Many fears that exist are rooted from negative experiences that have occurred. It is essential to move on from these thoughts.

Fear in the Present Moment

Fear in the present moment is called panic -- that sudden and unreasoned fear in the face of real or perceived danger. In order to be an effective leader and get through times of "panic," we need to move our attention to whatever situation we are faced with right now. When we go beyond the top 1 percent, 2 percent or 5 percent of the population, this is the place from which many people operate.

Fear of the Incomprehensible

There are other fears that the average person can't even comprehend. The first is the fear of being homeless -- and yes, this happened during the last housing crisis with employees living in their cars, on the streets, and without the knowledge of their co-workers. This is a fear that is paralyzing and embarrassing. The second is a fear of being dependent on others -- particularly for Boomers who have entered "Act 3" and fear being a burden on their children; and for children who can't find work and need to move back in with Mom and Dad.

Once we recognize the types of fear, it's time to identify how organizations can overcome the lethal culture killer.

6 ways that organizations can overcome fear in the workplace and create a fear-free culture:

1. Confront conflict with others face-to-face. Many times, we are afraid to have critical conversations because we are scared or uncomfortable. Conflict resolution is key for organizations to move forward. We must be able work through issues effectively and in a mature way instead of being scared. This is one way we are able to grow.
2. Increase and model self-awareness and emotional intelligence. It is very easy for fear to take over employee's emotions. We must have self-awareness about who we are in the workplace and what we are feeling. When we take time to notice what thoughts are occurring and recognize how this may affect our actions, we are able to handle our fears with control. They are then less likely to completely take over our behavior.
3. Overcome resistance to change. The only thing constant in life is change. It is inevitable that things are not going to stay the same. Organizations need to adapt quickly to new situations and people. We must let go of expectations about what we think should happen and shift our mindsets to see the good in all new opportunities.
4. Promote a positive mindset within employees. Organizations need to recognize the good that we do. Inspiration and enthusiasm is contagious and can help us thrive to reach our highest potential.
5. Be transparent. Organizations should be open and honest with all employees to avoid ambiguity. Fear is less likely to occur when organizations share with everyone what is going on and create a space for open dialogue and communication.
6. Encourage discussion about fear. We must take time to acknowledge, recognize and voice our fears. It is helpful to gain perspective from other people. This will help re-frame our fear from a difference viewpoint and realize our fear may not be as scary as it seems.

As we think about our "work family" this holiday season, we must be proactive and think about what our organizations can do to create a fear-free culture. These six tips will help us and our organizations create this environment. The possibilities of growth and development will be endless.

Jim Finkelstein is the President and CEO of FutureSense, Inc. Jim is a student of people and is constantly searching for ways to help understand their uniqueness. He has dedicated his career to helping organizations improve their effectiveness through strategy and execution of simple and proven solutions. He believes in getting stuff done.www.futuresense.com. Jim is the author of Fuse: Making Sense of the New Cogenerational Workplace (Greenleaf Book Group, 2011). He is an Adjunct Faculty member at Sonoma State University in their Executive MBA program You can follow him on Twitter @futuresense.

Sheila Repeta is a Senior Consultant at FutureSense, Inc. Sheila joined FutureSense in January of 2011. She earned her Bachelor's and Master's degrees in Communication from the University of Illinois. She has worked with several Fortune 500 companies working in HR and Training and Development. In addition to that work, she has taught communication and organizational development in various colleges and universities for nearly 10 years. Helping organizations align their business strategy with their people and processes, spending time with her 3 sons, and running melts her butter every day.

Molly is currently pursuing her master's degree in Leadership and Organizational Development at Chapman University and also works at Chapman on the Strategic Engagement and Development team. She received her undergraduate degree in business administration with a minor in leadership studies from Chapman University and is passionate about making a positive difference in the lives of others. Molly is an Orange County native and enjoys cooking and yoga. You can connect with Molly through LinkedIn.