Build a Culture That Fuels Courage, Not Fear

February 08, 2021

Filed Under: Leadership and Management

By Margie Warrell

Photo Credit: Getty

Emotions drive behavior, not logic. And one of the most potent emotions is fear. Given the rollercoaster of the last 12 months, and the uncertainty of what still lays ahead, there’s a lot of fear swirling across the Zoom-ways right now. 

What if they make more cut backs? What if we’re forced to go back into the office? What if I can’t hit budget? What if they restructure… again? What if my job gets automated, or outsourced, or...?

It’s why one of the greatest challenges and responsibilities of leaders – at every level - is combatting fear and fostering courage. In themselves, in others, and across their entire organization.

To do that, it’s helpful to understand the psychology of fear, particularly amid uncertainty. Wired for survival, when people feel insecure about their future, they ten to get pulled into ‘fear-casting’ - over-estimating risks, underestimating themselves and acting primarily to shore up their short-term future. Yet while playing it safe can provide the illusion of security in the short term, it generally leaves people less secure (and organizations less competitive) over the long haul. Individually and collectively.

So if you’re in any sort of leadership role, here’s a few ways you can instill the value of courage in your workplace, and help people take the brave actions needed to emerge the other side of this pandemic more secure, not less so.

Share the larger context – what lays at stake?

In the midst of periods of intense disruption, leaders have a unique opportunity to activate the ‘rally effect’; fostering solidarity toward a shared ‘mission critical’. Don’t squander that opportunity. Ensure everyone is clear about what lays at stake if they don’t all pull together and paint a compelling vision of the ‘invented future’ that would be possible if they do. As this pandemic rolls on... and on... people are hungry for a deeper sense of purpose in their work and lives; to know that all their hardship is not for naught. Help them find it. 

Work to get it right, not to be right 

When asked what courageous leadership looks like, Kate Johnson, President of Microsoft $45B business replied, “When you see a person trying to get it right, instead of trying to be right.” 

As a leader you are like an emotional barometer in your organization, providing ‘cues’ to everyone on how to respond and behave. 

If you show up as anxious, you’ll only stoke anxiety in others. So before you focus on strategies and processes, get your head and heart in the right space, and ground yourself in the values you want to define yourself as a leader. 

Employees understand there’s a lot outside your control. Yet if they can trust that you’re at least in control of yourself, it provides a type of psychological safety net that encourages them to feel more confident in the future and braver in their actions.  

Remember, you lead by virtue of who you are, not what you do or say. Work to try to get it right, not be right.

Encourage non-conformity 

The paradigms that worked in the past will be insufficient to succeed in the future.  When weighing the pros and cons of dissenting from the consensus, people are wired for caution. While the best decisions emerge from a diversity of perspectives, often those with outlier opinions will feel the most reticent to share them. Even more so if they’ve seen others penalized for challenging back on ‘how things are done around here.’

Leaders who reward ‘loyal dissenters’ - those with the courage to ‘stick their neck out’ for the greater good - reduce collective fear and build the psychological safety needed for others to report, share and discuss what’s not working. After all, it’s those uncomfortable ‘courageous conversations’ that are not happening that often incur the steepest hidden tax down the road. 

Listen for the unspoken fears… then speak to them

As people have been forced to connect remotely, it’s left many feeling disconnected. So be deliberate in checking in with people 1:1 regularly, asking how they are and then listening. Not just for what is being said but for what is being unsaid. The more closely you can speak to the unspoken fears of others, and alleviate them, the better positioned you’ll be to keep people focused and bringing their boldest thinking to the challenges at hand.   

If you think you’re too busy for this, consider that the number one reason good employees quit is because they don’t feel their immediate boss cares about them. Of course the current job market will make many reluctant to quit, but don’t kid yourself that you’re getting the best from people who are dreaming of the day they can.

Embolden people to ‘play to win’  

Pygmalion Theory holds that people rise to the level of expectation others have of them. Treating people as innately trust-worthy motivates them to prove you right. Give people latitude to get on with their jobs as they see is best, delegate decision-making authority, and communicates hat you want them to operate from a ‘play to win’ mindset, versus a defensive playing not to lose.  

Remember, it’s a rule of thumb that people will play it safe unless they feel psychologically safe (and actively encouraged) to do otherwise.  So let people know you’ve got their back. On the flip side, when you micromanage, second guess their decisions, and fuel fear by saying things like ‘don’t mess this up!’, you do just the opposite, shrinking the holes in their psychological safety net.

Destigmatize failure

No one sets out to fail. Yet unless people feel safe enough to risk making a ‘miss-step’ , they’ll only make small incremental changes, cautiously iterating on what’s already in place. This stifles innovation and deprives everyone of the learning required to build and retain edge. 

study at University of Exeter Business School found that leaders who back employees to back themselves build stronger performing teams. Removing the stigma of failure is essential to optimizing growth and adapting quickly to change.

So talk about failure, including your own, in ways that normalize it as necessary for meaningful progress. At weekly meetings, ask everyone to share how they’ve failed in the last week and what they learnt in the process. Then celebrate the learning and discuss about how you can apply it to other projects. 

Operate from a ‘Don’t know mind’

The only way we can adapt to whatever new reality we’re headed toward (which, let’s face it, none of us can accurately predict) is to let go our certainties, acknowledge there’s an awful lot that we ‘don’t know we don’t know’ and be open to unlearning what we think we know so we can relearn what we need to know.  

Adopting a ‘Don’t know mind’ may sound like an abstract Zen mindfulness technique (which Buddhist teacher Jack Kornfield has written about), yet the more willing you are to role model grounded humility about what you don’t know, the safer you make it for others to let go their own certainties, interrogate their own ‘mental maps’ and ask better questions. Better answers will always emerge from this ‘don’t know’ space. To quote the title of Marshall Goldsmith’s bestselling book, “What got you here won’t get you there.”

None of us are immune to fear. It’s why managing fear is both one of the greatest challenges and opportunities for leaders right now.  

Managed poorly, fear drives capable, creative people to make short-sighted, over-cautious decisions that stifle the very creativity and collaboration needed to seize the opportunities that crisis always holds.

Embedding the value of courage within the culture of your team and workplace is important at all times. In the midst of uncertain times, it’s mission critical.  

And if you’re unsure where to start, look within. Sometimes you have to be braver than you want to be. The number one way to fuel courage, not fear, is to act with the very courage you wish to inspire in others.

For the original article, visit: Forbes.