What Happens When Employees Lose Their Fear?
Managing the workplace is like a game of Jenga. It is made up of individual pieces that can reinforce the structure, weaken it or cause it to tumble down. Because every individual block that is removed affects the stability of the tower, it’s important for players to anticipate how the removal of one could affect the others. If the tower is teetering, the player must carefully identify and remove a block that will re-balance it. If that fails and the tower tumbles down, the only option is to rebuild.
While that idea might traumatize leaders, that's good — provided the trauma causes them to think ahead, identify blocks that, if removed, could destabilize the organizational tower, and figure out what they can do to keep it from falling.
As recently as January 2022, The New York Times reported that “employees are increasingly … feeling empowered to call out their managers.” According to a report by Redwood City, Calif.-based employment screening services provider GoodHire, “Eighty-three percent of respondents felt they could do their job without any managers.” These are just two examples of the bold changes in employee attitudes that have left many post-pandemic leaders asking, “Who died and left them in charge?”
The answer is simple: Fear died.
Yes, that long-entrenched dread of job loss — one of the longest lasting, most stabilizing 'blocks' in the workforce — appears to have relinquished its grip on the employee psyche. And its removal from the organizational tower is causing unanticipated fluctuation and instability in the overall structure of the workplace. I’m convinced that the most successful post-pandemic leaders will be those who explore and exploit the transformational change its absence is already generating across workforce cultures.
Who's Afraid Now?
When COVID hit, furloughs were taken and offices forsaken, setting many employees free to exert a previously unheard of autonomy. With no one looking over their shoulders and telling them what had to be done, most did a surprisingly good job of figuring it out for themselves.
As Rosa Parks explained years after her historic bus ride, “… knowing what must be done does away with fear.” Just as knowing what she had to do gave her the courage to board that bus in Montgomery, employees’ brush with autonomy appears to have instilled in them a fresh sense of self-sufficiency, self-confidence and self-esteem. Maybe it is also what gave them the courage to re-examine both their values and their value.
Industry pundits and prognosticators, along with many industry leaders, were not initially alarmed by this new employee frame of mind. They focused instead on the most obvious consequence of the pandemic: the thousands of workers abandoning jobs and careers. In fact, many leaders are still clueless about the significance of the "fear shift” occurring around them and too few are asking what could very well be the most relevant post-pandemic question of all:
“What if the most transformative outcome of the pandemic is not that employees are leaving, but that those remaining, and arriving are far less fearful and far more powerful than at any other time in history?”
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Learning to Drive a Fear Shift
Wikipedia defines causality as "a phenomenon in which one event, process, state or object contributes to the production of another event, process, state or object, where the cause is partly responsible for the effect, and the effect is partly dependent on the cause." This is not just the principal behind the game of Jenga — it’s also an explanation for the fear shift that is occurring in the workplace.
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As employees’ fear has eroded, their power has escalated. With this escalation, management status has eroded, and their fear of talent loss has escalated. And today’s leaders face the unprecedented challenge of managing the fallout both events are having on existing organizational practices and management behaviors.
I believe the answer lies in two critical leadership tasks:
- Catch Up: Leaders update themselves on their employees’ revised mindset and understand the effect it is having on "the way we’ve always done things here."
- Match Up: Leaders look for ways to embrace this mindset and match up organizational practices and management behaviors where appropriate in ways that respect and reflect it.
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It's Not a Game, But …
Driving the fear shift is no game. Unlike Jenga, the removal of the “fear block” was not intentional. It was discovered, not designed. It happened gradually and almost undetectably.
And if its potential impact is ignored, other blocks in the organizational tower might wobble or even tumble down. But if recognized (or even considered earlier as a “what if” or “what could be” phenomenon) and then well-managed, the removal of employee fear in the workplace can be a force-multiplier that increases an enterprise’s performance potential and allows it to compete more effectively in the post-pandemic workplace.
Perceptive leaders will recognize this. Prescient leaders will examine their organizations for any instabilities the missing fear block might cause — as well as any fresh equilibrium it might generate. Proactive leaders will exploit these discoveries for the good of the organization and its individuals. But all leaders must begin managing this fear shift by answering the same question:
“How will a less fearful, more powerful workforce transform our organizational culture, and how can I lead this transformation for the growth and well-being of all?”
About the Author
Dr. Beverly Kaye is recognized internationally as one of the most knowledgeable and practical professionals in the areas of career development, employee engagement and retention.