Taking a shot of Christmas courage

No force in business is as powerful or pervasive as fear. Rather than papering over this, we can learn to bring fear to the surface and embrace it.

Christmas is almost upon us again. In the frantic rush to clear the decks for a holiday, buy the presents and arrange the family lunch, we often have little time to think about the meaning of the celebration for us personally, let alone for our organisation. Something to do with a guy from Nazareth. Yet, if we are willing to pause for a few moments, and reflect, there are some powerful messages that can help us to be better managers.

I was raised an Anglican, although I have not been a churchgoer for many years. I have, however, followed an interest in all the religious and spiritual traditions and I have developed an enormous respect for the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth. He said many profound and helpful things but the one that stands out for me is his constant reference to the power of fear and the need, not only to be aware of it, but to actively counter it. "Do not be afraid" was a perennial theme of his teaching. Jesus understood how corrosive and enervating fear could be, for individuals but also for groups.

As a management advisor I have worked with scores of businesses over many years. I have sat through countless meetings, had discussions with hundreds of executives and directors, and facilitated meetings with thousands of staff. After a while, you become pretty good at sensing the forces that are at work. In my experience, no force in business is as powerful or as pervasive as fear.

The symptoms of fear are many and varied. Some of them are:
– Stress
– Sickness and absence from work
– Conflict
– Lack of concentration
– Mistakes
– Caution and a reluctance to speak our minds.

Beyond specific symptoms, one often picks up a general sense of unease and watchfulness; we exercise our know-how in a dull, calculating and careful way in order to survive. All of these things drain our energy, make us less joyful, less creative, and less fruitful. The cost to our business is enormous.

Rather than directly addressing the real cause of these symptoms, we often paper over the cracks with platitudes about values, cumbersome processes, hollow pep talks, and shallow concepts such as ‘work life balance’ (the bizarre implication of which is that we are not alive when we are at work and should revitalise ourselves when we are not at work).

When we realise that fear is the underlying issue we can address it directly by bringing it to the surface, identifying its specific characteristics, and embracing it. Fear grows in the darkness and through avoidance. It cannot survive the light of open inspection and engagement.

So, how do we shine a light on our workplace fears? The first step is simply to have the courage, and the common sense, to start talking about them. This will be potentially the most important conversation that you will have with your team in the year ahead, because of the energy that it will release and all of the specific initiatives that it will lead to. It is worth setting aside several hours just to explore the causes, and the effects, of fear in your workplace as a prelude to action. You will discover, I suspect, that the fear in your employees flows from things such as:

– Lack of clear strategic direction (which creates uncertainty)
– The nature of the employment contract (everyone is, in essence, permanently ‘on appro’)
– Underperformance and pressure to improve
– Major structural and other changes
– Absence of good teamwork
– Little emphasis on rewards
– The effect of fearful personalities

These things, and others, lead to motivation borne of deficit, or lack. We become fearful employees when our need for safety, belonging, and esteem is not met.

It is fashionable today to talk about the importance of ‘courageous conversations’. I would put a conversation about fear at the top of the list. In doing this, I would remember (and tell my group about) the words of Jesus of Nazareth: "Do not be afraid".

Christopher Tipler is a Melbourne-based management advisor and author of Corpus RIOS – The how and what of business strategy. His web site corpusrios.com contains more material on this and related topics.

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