Caught Between Fear and Trust – The Elephants in the Room

Our research and training within the public and private sectors reveal staffs are clearly feeling the pressures of performing in climates of

  • more for less
  • cut backs
  • redundancies
  • limited promotion opportunities
  • diminishing resources
  • pay freezes

The Effects of Fear and Trust 

Everyone has been feeling the pinch between fear and trust.

These are highly influential emotions because they sit at the heart of all human performance; as well as our well-being and thriving at work. But do enough leaders really understand them?

Research shows that only 49% of employees trust senior management, and only 28% believe CEOs are a credible source of information.

These two powerful emotions directly affect the quality of service given to both customers and colleagues. That in turn affects morale, motivation, engagement, communication and collaboration and therefore, bottom line results.

The Yerkes-Dodson Law – Something for Leaders to Grasp

According to the law established by psychologists Yerkes-Dodson, mental tasks have a U shape relationship with anxiety. Meaning that some anxiety improves performance up to a point, but after the peak effect there are diminishing returns.

For example, the anxiety we might experience before an exam shows how the Law operates. An optimal, not too intense, level of stress can help our focus; assisting in remembering the information we’ve studied.

While too much test-anxiety, can impair our ability to concentrate and make it more difficult to remember the correct answers.

Sporting performances also offer common examples – The England soccer team taking penalties is a great case in point.

An ideal level of arousal such as winning a major tournament can and ‘should’ sharpen performance but when a player gets too stressed out, he might instead “choke” and miss the shot.

What this means in business is that unless leaders in the workplace are adept at diminishing anxiety they end up choking staff performance!

 The Brian Science shows…

…the Amygdala is responsible for fear and anxiety and problems arise when its’ activation happens unconsciously.

This can have the following affects

  • quality decision making becomes impaired
  • irrationality creeps in
  • neutral events can seem more negative

In the work environment, leaders trigger the Amygdala through

  • False language such a, ‘This is an opportunity not a problem’, ‘getting more with less’
  • An iron fist or ‘just do it’ mantras
  •  Constantly pushing for targets and stats with no interest to personal resilience levels and those damaging emotions that destroy well being and performance.
  • Using control, intimidation and false charm or when staffs survive in a corporate culture that’s infused with threat and punishment (however subtle and well hidden).

During (or post) cut backs and recession, the above are common experiences and are often misperceived as appropriate, ‘the norm’ and even motivational by some leaders – but not for staff and how their Amygdala naturally react to fear and threat.

Leaders often make these mistakes because they’re own Amygdala is running the show and they are unconscious to this. They are often in fear and threat reactions due to the same tactics being used on them.

Trust – An Antidote

High levels of trust on the other hand, decrease Amygdala activation. When public sector organisations are trust-based, it makes things easier on the Amygdala, especially during stressful, economic times.

Add in the research that shows high trust organisations outperform low trust ones and we see why creating trust is essential.

The challenge is, lots of organisations talk about trust, often cited in their lists of values or vision statement but fewer embody trust from centre to skin of the organisation.

How to Embody Trust?

If creating Trust was simple we’d be overwhelmed with high trust corporate cultures but were not.

There are a few notable examples that have created strong trust cultures. From the private sector, Whole Foods, Waitrose and LV are examples. Right now The Co-Operative bank is struggling in their trust building relationships. What of the public sector?

Currently, there are far too many meetings taking place in which people are being told that cut backs are ‘an opportunity’ or ‘a challenge’, that ‘accountability’ is key when staff and managers are now doing twice the work because their teams have been axed in half – All triggering unhelpful levels of anxiety that unknowingly inhibits performance.

Clearly, staff’s don’t feel these offers are opportunities at all; especially as their systems, being flooded with fear and mistrust, will affect their enthusiasm, motivation, moral and physical energy to perform.

Often with little or no recognition from their leaders, that this is the real problem, (sorry opportunity!), the Elephants in the Room.

It’s our emotions such as anxiety and fear that are disregarded by many leaders as the pace of change they set raises them to unhealthy levels, damaging staff well-being, performance and results.

In the next decades, if we are to truly transform our public and private sector organisations, in which everyone at every level is regarded important in their own right, (and not just as a means to better business results) we will need to embrace learning and personal development in the following.

  • empathy
  • compassion (the next level up from empathy)
  • emotional resilience
  • new practices in skills such as mindfulness
  • understanding our body-brain links

These are topics of much needed learning, required for the most senior to the inductee.

If we don’t embrace this learning, we’re likely to see the same rebounding issues between fear and trust, which at levels of brain function; well being and ethics will never serve optimum performance.

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