Making work safe: What would your employees do if they weren’t afraid?

Gender Gap Bonnie Low KramenBy Bonnie for SmartCEO| June, 2016

“Imagine a world where we feel safe at work.” Simon Sinek, Start With Why
It’s a good bet that most of your staff members don’t feel safe. In fact, it’s likely that they are afraid. This matters because fear is crippling to individuals and to companies. Fear stops us in our tracks.
When staff are afraid, they are distracted and possibly angry, depressed, edgy, aggressive, or any combination thereof. It is simply not possible to produce excellent work when human beings feel any of these things. This is the main reason why we need to take action to address fear in our workplace and take steps to make it “safe.” Fears are hurting your people, and that fact is hurting your bottom-line profits.
Some fears are irrational and some are founded in reality, but they are fears nonetheless, and they are eating up lots of time and energy. The top fears are:

1. Making a mistake
2.  Losing the job and, therefore, financial security
3. Confronting a difficult person

In Spencer Johnson’s bestseller Who Moved My Cheese?, he wrote, “What would you do if you weren’t afraid?” This question resonates with almost every working person I know. The question inspires us to imagine a life without fear. But how do we get there?
CEOs hold the keys
The nature of the workplace is that staff protects the boss, compounded by the fact that no one enjoys being the messenger of not-so-great news. Call it the “CEO bubble.” Therefore, staff won’t easily share their true and authentic thoughts with the boss unless there is a safe mechanism to do so. It begins at the top — with you.
If this is surprising news, I suggest thinking back to any job you ever had to remember how easy or difficult it was to talk to “the boss.” There is an inherent fear of the person who holds the power of your fate.
Here are some true stories about workplace fear. The names have been changed.
Jill is an assistant from New Jersey who was working in New York City. On the job for six months, she was having a very hard time getting to work at the agreed start time of 8:30 am because of the train schedule, combined with child care issues. Jill loved her job but was consumed with fear that she was going to get fired because of coming in late too often. On one particularly bad commuting day, she mustered up the courage to discuss the situation with her manager and ask to adjust her hours by 30 minutes. Essentially, Jill would arrive at 9 am and stay 30 minutes later. The immediate response was, “Of course. Start tomorrow.”
Cheryl felt she had no choice. She went into her executive’s office on Monday morning and sat down. She was shaking from fear and said, “I am resigning and giving you two weeks’ notice but if I could leave sooner, I will.” Her stunned executive took a moment and then said, “Do you really want to resign or are you leaving because your mother is sick and you need to take care of her?” Cheryl said, “It’s my mom. I need to be with her.” The executive said, “I don’t want to lose you. Your job is safe. Do what you need to do with your mother and your job will be here when you get back.” Cheryl and her executive are still working together.
Jenny is a 20-year executive assistant to her CEO, and she knows she needs more training to keep her relevant and valuable. She was excited to attend an upcoming two-day conference, but had never before asked her CEO to invest in her professional development. Even though they have an excellent and trusting relationship, Jenny was terrified to ask for the all-in $2,000. She thought about it for two months and created a detailed email outlining her plan. The day came. The CEO was in his office and she was in hers. Jenny nervously hit “send” and knew her CEO would read the email right away. She stared at her inbox and watched the response from the CEO come back to her in less than a minute. The CEO’s response was four words. “Sounds good to me.”
Steve supports five executives as an assistant. He used to support three. In this particular week, all five execs were traveling in various time zones. Because Steve was so worried that something would fall through the cracks, he stayed awake for 24 hours and kept his cell phone next to him at all times. He said this happened on a regular basis and that his health was suffering. I asked why he was not telling the executives that he was drowning in work. Steve replied, “I can’t tell them. The culture of our company is to not complain. To complain puts you on the short list to get fired. Work/life balance exists for executives but not staff.” Steve continues to work but is burning out fast.

The 5 ways for CEOs to diffuse fear
1. Reward and publicly acknowledge those staff who take risks to name problems and devise plans to solve them.
2. Schedule regular two-way feedback in one-on-one meetings, creating a safe environment to express ideas.
3. Create an annual survey to find out what staff really thinks.
4. Nip rumors in the bud, as in immediately. Your staff’s imaginations are far worse than the reality.
5. Communicate in regular email updates. That way, your staff learns that you won’t just talk to them when there’s bad news.
Important note about gender: When women feel fear, they choose silence as their default defense. Males tend to think that if no one is complaining, there is no problem. With women, this is not true at all. In general, women need to be sincerely and repeatedly encouraged to speak their minds. Once they feel safe to do so, CEOs will hear everything they need to know.
Imagine… what would your staff do if they weren’t afraid?

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Making work safe: What would your employees do if they weren’t afraid?
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