Driving out fear in the workplace

office staff

Boss-phobia robs even the best employees of their ability to be themselves and to speak out.

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Hekima experienced anxiety attacks each time she knocked on the door of her new manager’s office. Her body would quake, her voice would shake, and her hands would start to perspire. She experienced extreme fear. She was reluctant to speak up or express her opinions because she was afraid about how her manager would react and that she would get yelled at.

As a result, Hekima lost the confidence to let her manager know the improvements that their department needed to produce better overall results. Everyone in the department, even the tea girl, had a deep-seated fear of the new manager.

Hekima had consistently been a high-performing employee. Her section had consistently been the best performing within the company for years. Hekima was loved by her team and by others within the company.

She had cultivated strong bonds with her peers across the organisation and purposefully established a productive and positive subculture in her section. Unfortunately, her new manager was making it very difficult for her to continue being at her best.

Hekima perceived her manager as intimidating, disempowering, frightful, and frustrating. She had already begun thinking about a way out. Only three months had passed since the new manager joined the team. All his other direct reports were disgruntled and disengaged; they were all seeking a way out.

Hekima’s situation is not an isolated one. The dread of superiors, or boss-phobia, is real and widespread in the workplace. I experienced it at one of the companies where I worked. Our direct manager used threats and intimidation, and I did not like either.

I picked up great lessons on how not to manage, and in a few months, I was out of there. Businesses hoping to survive into the future must be conscious of losing their best employees because of fear created by their superiors. Rarely is this fear discussed openly in the workplace.

There is a fear of discussing fear in the workplace. Boss-phobia robs even the best employees of their ability to be themselves and to speak out. Fear puts barriers between leadership and their staff. Fear denies employees the chance to be creative and to share improvement ideas with confidence. Fear demotivates the staff and it creates a toxic culture. Overall, I believe that fear leads to poor business performance.

Driving out fear in the workplace is a leadership responsibility. Dr. W. Edwards Deming, the father of total quality management, in his 14 key principles for management, talks about the need to eliminate fear. Leaders have the responsibility to build a high-trust environment where the staff are open to each other and their managers.

In particular, Dr. Deming, in explaining this eighth principle, says management needs to be open and approachable, staff should be allowed to express ideas or concerns without fear, a blame culture should be avoided, and staff should be allowed to learn from mistakes made, freely share feedback, and seek improvement opportunities.

If there is fear at your workplace, it is time to take some positive action. I find the involvement of staff in finding the best solutions for the workplace a powerful way to drive out fear.

Dr Lucy Kiruthu is a Management Consultant and Trainer. Connect via Twitter @KiruthuLucy

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