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Boss’s Tip of the Week #9: Fear and Mistrust: How To Overcome Negative Emotions That Infect the Workplace

Here is the 9th installment of the Boss’s Tip of the Week.  This advice column for managers is brought to you by Bob Rosner and Allan Halcrow, co-authors of The Boss’s Survival Guide.

We all love a good scare: The big drop on the roller coaster, the icky chills in a Halloween haunted house, the unexpected lunge in a suspense flick. That fear is a quick adrenaline rush, usually followed by the release of a good laugh. Yes, we love a good scare – but not at work. The fear that infects the workplace isn’t quick, and there’s no rush to it. Instead, it lingers in the workplace, sapping energy and morale, undermining productivity and brewing suspicion.
 
You have a strong influence over the level of fear and mistrust in your workplace. Need proof? Lynn Taylor Consulting did a national poll in 2009 in which it found that 76% of workers experience fear when their boss closes his or her door. Not announces a layoff. Not conducts a disciplinary hearing. No, 76% of people fear when their boss closes the door.
 
If closing a door can have that kind of effect, imagine what kind of fear other activities may stoke. As amazing as it may seem, some bosses actually work to create fear. For some, it’s just one facet of a power trip; others believe that a little fear motivates people. It doesn’t. The sooner you can eliminate that kind of negativity from your workplace, the better. Here’s how:
 
Take Action
 
Teach, don’t punish. Do you yell first and ask questions second? When employees make mistakes do you tend to reprimand before you have all the data? If you do, you discourage the kind of risk-taking that raises morale and promotes progress, and you instill fear. Turn fear into respect by using mistakes as growth opportunities.
 
Cut the sarcasm. Where there’s sarcasm there’s usually fear, because sarcasm makes people the butt of the joke. Work to eliminate all sarcastic jokes and comments from your workplace. Start with your own repertoire, then make it clear that you won’t tolerate sarcasm from others, either.
 
Discuss the undiscussables. Every place has undiscussables: employees who get favored treatment, policies that aren’t followed, managers who inspire fear. Ask your employees about the undiscussables and then listen intently to what they say. They won’t confide in you immediately, but if you gently keep at it, don’t retaliate and instead take constructive action, you can build their trust. That goes a long way toward reducing fear.
 
Play dumb. Instead of blowing in like a hurricane and blasting people with directions and information, ask lots of questions. That can be one of your best methods for “lightening up.” You’ll be amazed at what people already know. And your employees will appreciate your respect and deference to their knowledge.
 
Model the behavior you’d like to see. Workplace911 got an email from someone who worked in an office where everyone left early and was constantly goofing off — everyone except Mary. Believe it or not, Mary gradually changed everyone else’s behavior simply by modeling what everyone knew they should be doing. Leading by example does work.
 
Use humor. Humor is a great way to both disarm people and to get them to remember what you’re saying. So don’t leave your humor at home – it’s a great release valve for fear.

Boss’s Tip of the Week #9: Fear and Mistrust: How To Overcome Negative Emotions That Infect the Workplace
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