Magazine article Workforce

When Fear Strikes the Workplace

Magazine article Workforce

When Fear Strikes the Workplace

Article excerpt

"Did you see all those rats?" My friend John had just watched a new TV show called Fear Factor. In it, contestants face a series of nerve-rattling, stomach-turning activities. The one person who can hack it walks off with $50,000.

John couldn't get over the rat scene. "Each person got strapped in a pit and had to stay there for four minutes with hundreds of crawling, nibbling rats. It was terrible." He started laughing nervously.

"That's how I feel when I'm at work, like I'm in a rat pit," he said. "It's that scary."

Over the years, John has told me all about the organization where he works. It's a market-research firm known for its high-- IQ workforce, but among insiders, it's seen as a place where threats and punishment are routinely used by managers to "get things done."

There was the time John got scolded, grade-school style, for taking a devil's advocate look at the boss's suggested methodology for an upcoming project. There was the time he and several coworkers got a month of silent treatment from their manager after collaborating with people on another project team. There was the time they were told to meet an outlandish deadline, "or else." There was the time--well, let's just say there have been lots of times.

John has way too much company In my ongoing focus groups and informal conversations, I hear countless stories about fear-filled workplaces.

One person called his boss Freddy--as in Freddy Krueger, from A Nightmare on Elm Street. Mr. Krueger had slashed his way to a senior management position, and he used his new authority to stick his least-- favorite employees with dead-end assignments. When people saw the boss approaching, they would announce, "He's baaaack." It was their one way to lighten up an otherwise oppressive situation.

Another person described the fear in her workplace by quoting from Edgar Allan Poe's "The Raven." She and her colleagues did their best to keep away from several key (and apparently raven-like) managers. It was a closed-door culture. Suddenly there came a tapping... at my chamber door...I stood there, wondering, fearing, doubting...

This is no way to have a totally engaged and productive workforce, that's for sure. According to the American Institute of Stress, 40 percent of worker turnover is the result of job stress, and some one million workers are absent each workday because of stress-related complaints. Sure, some of the stress is unrelated to work or workplace fear, but cut these numbers in half and they're still staggering.

Psychologists have long known the impact of positive and negative "affect," or mood. A positive affect has been shown to pump up creativity, while a negative affect stifles it and leads to mistrust, cynicism, isolation, and competition. Not exactly the stuff we want in our high-performance organizations, is it?

Fear also writes its own version of reality. At data-driven companies where fear runs rampant, spreadsheets routinely get tweaked and twisted into "acceptable" shape. I've heard all about this in my interviews with well-meaning people who will do just about anything to escape the boss's wrath. …

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