Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash
Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

The impact of fear on productivity

The best things in life are free.  Breathing fresh air.  A walk on the beach.  Being hugged by a loved one.  Hearing the words “I am sorry” or “I love you”.  Yet, often we measure our worth by the things we have, rather than the experiences we share. Our view of productivity tends to be similar.  We often look at expensive high-tech tools to increase and measure productivity, overlooking the free and readily accessible low-tech solutions available to us.  One of these overlooked solutions is changing behaviors and specifically the impact of fear on productivity.

Behaviors have more influence on productivity than any technology tool I’ve encountered.  Ultimately, it is the people who use, implement and support the tools.  When they don’t feel motivated or believe in the tool, they will sabotage or misuse it.

Garbage in, garbage out

The best systems and tools in the world are as good as the data that goes into it.  It’s the behaviors, not the tools, that make a tool or process productive or not.

Behaviors either support or impede people to produce more with fewer resources.  Behaviors that encourage productivity improvements include respect, trust, compassion, forgiveness, and transparency.  They build an engaged and motivated workforce, who will do whatever it takes to overcome obstacles and eliminate bottlenecks.  A motivated and engaged team can do anything.  They will go that extra mile to make miracles happen.

The biggest impediment to productive teams

Compared to the best technology in the world, motivation as a productivity tool by far outperforms technology of any kind.  After all, it is people who build technology. Motivated teams build high-quality technology.  Demotivated teams build in errors, get the requirements wrong and solve the wrong problems. They experience the impact of fear on productivity.

There are many behaviors that demotivate and impact productivity.  The biggest impediment by far impacting productivity and motivation is fear.  When people feel unsafe, it is impossible to perform at optimum levels of performance.  Where in a motivated space energy is focused on problem solving and creativity, in a fear-driven environment energy is spent on defending and protecting yourself.

Some of the reasons not to manage by control and fear include:

1. Fear distracts you from your productive work

When managed by fear, employees focus on staying safe.  They spend time gathering evidence to protect them from any possible disciplinary actions.   Time that could have been spent on producing results is spent on looking for evidence to protect them from perceived danger.

2. Fear increases the need for switching between tasks

Employees managed by means of fear tend to switch more between tasks, in an attempt to look more productive than what they really are.

They, for example, spend time on the internet, which might look unproductive at a glace, but ultimately supports their productivity.  They don’t stop doing the tasks not directly assigned to them, they find ways to do it secretly. Additionally, they attempt to hide it from their manager and switch to more productive work whenever the manager walks past.

Each time they switch between tasks, they need extra time to focus their attention on the new task, decreasing their productivity.

3. Fear limits creative thinking and problem-solving ability

When people are scared that they might be reprimanded or fired when they make a mistake, they refrain from coming up with solutions.  They are unable to think clearly, let alone creatively, fearing they might be punished for not producing the results exactly as the manager wants it.

4. Fear is debilitating, causing you to be less productive

In extreme situations, fear can be debilitating, rendering an employee unable to do any work, fully realising the impact of fear on productivity.

5. Fear increases doubt

People who feel unsafe tend to doubt themselves.  They might know the right thing to do but will refrain from taking action because they are not sure whether the action will be punished or rewarded.

6. Fear causes procrastination

Fear causes people to procrastinate, unwilling to move forward because they fear to take the wrong action or ask the wrong question.  They would rather spend time and energy finding ways to look busy than risk doing something they are not 100% sure will be accepted.

7. Fear breaks down and inhibits communication

Probably the biggest disadvantage of managing by fear is the break down in communication.  People are afraid to raise issues, point out gaps or errors in the process, and ask questions.  They will spend time doing the wrong work, rather than to clarify an issue.

This impacts productivity not only directly, by not doing productive work, but also indirectly, by causing you to redo the same work at a later stage.

8. Fear hides problems

When problems can be seen, they can be fixed. When people are afraid to raise issues, they tend to spend their energy trying to hide it.  That doesn’t mean that the problem goes away, it merely means it will most probably remain undiscovered until a customer discovers it.  This impacts both the productivity and the reputation of the organization.

9. Fear causes confusion by blurring the goal

When people are afraid, their perception becomes limited.  Their fear will drive them to take the first action right in front of them, not spending the time to think about whether this helps them achieve their goal or not.  The more they act without thinking, the more blurred the goal becomes until finally, everyone is confused and unproductive.

10. Fear lowers motivation

You can only feel one emotion at a time, just as you can only focus on one task at a time.  When someone experiences fear, they’re not able to feel motivated.

On the emotional scale, moving downwards, towards the more negative emotions, is much easier than moving up towards positivity.  Fear thus lowers motivation and makes it much harder to get back to the same level of motivation as before.

Driving out fear

Dr Deming, the father of the Quality evolution, came up with a list of 14 principles of management to improve the effectiveness of a business.  These principles form the foundation of the Toyota Way, a philosophy and methodology followed by Toyota, and the reason for turning it around from close to bankruptcy to one of the highest performance and most respected businesses in the world.

One of his 14 principles for an effective and productive business is to drive out fear.

“We must preserve the power of intrinsic motivation, dignity, cooperation, curiosity, joy in learning, that people are born with.” – Dr W Edwards Deming

Dr Deming believed that a problem can only be solved when you know about it.  He also believed that the people who know what’s really going on, are the people doing the work.  It is thus crucial to creating a safe environment where the people on the ground feel free to express their ideas and voice potential problems.

How do you drive out fear?

Driving out fear requires a culture change within the leadership of the organization.  Eventually, it will minimise the impact of fear on productivity.   It requires, above all, courage.  Courage to be honest. Courage to look at problems.  Finally, the courage to attempt to change.  Driving out fear requires building a psychologically safe environment.  At the heart of psychological safety are authenticity and integrity.  Here are a few guidelines to drive out fear:

1. Clarify the vision and objectives

When everyone is clear and agrees on the vision of the organization, conflict can easily be resolved, making it a safe environment to raise issues.  Shift the focus from perceiving issues as a personal attack on you as a leader to bullet-proofing the solution in an attempt to reach a shared goal.

2. Make information accessible

The easiest and most effective way to remove fear is to make information accessible.  When people have access to information, they spend less time searching for it or make mistakes as a result of not having access to it.

3. Clarify rules and expectations explicitly

People want to succeed.  They don’t meet expectations because the rules are unclear or they are not competent yet.  When rules are made clear explicitly, they will most probably abide by these rules and spend less time wondering what is expected from them or doing what they think is expected from them.

4. Be consistent in your actions

Probably the biggest cause of fear is inconsistency in actions by the leader.  Changing the rules without a clear reason, favoritism, and elitism are all examples of not being consistent.

Being consistent makes you more predictable and when you are predictable, the employees can relax enough to spend their effort and time on productive work, not worrying about how you are going to behave.

5. Be transparent and explain decisions explicitly

Transparency is about being open.  Open to receive criticism. Open to listening to ideas.  Additionally, open to express thoughts and ideas.  People fear a leader when they don’t know what they are thinking.  Remove any assumptions or worst case scenarios by expressing what you think about a given situation or idea in real time.

When you demonstrate that you are open to new ideas, people will feel safe to raise problems or come to you with ideas to solve a problem.

6. Give feedback – both positive and negative

Many managers want to be liked.  They are there for you when things go well, but the moment when there is negative feedback to be given or conflict to be resolved, they walk away.  They outsource people issues to Human Resources to deal with, or worse, avoid it totally.

When people know what they are doing right, they will do more of that.  When they know what they are doing wrong, they will attempt to change it.  Accurate and constructive feedback is the single biggest tool to ensure that each step taken is in the right direction.

7. Acknowledge your mistakes

Perfection is a waste.  The more human you are, the more accessible and trustworthy you are.  When you, as the leader, are willing to acknowledge your mistakes and be vulnerable, you give people permission to also make mistakes.  This reduces the fear of not being perfect.

Read more about why not knowing all the answers makes you a better leader.

8. Allow other people to make mistakes

Rather than trying to prevent them from making mistakes, provide a safe environment where they can fail without the negative consequences of an unintended mistake.  Focus on the solution and positive intent, not the problem.  When people feel safe to fail, they are also safe to innovate and solve problems proactively.

9. Be fair

Listen to both sides of the story before making a judgment.  Make judgments based on and aligned with the vision and objectives and the impact on the organization.

10. Demonstrate integrity

Say what you do and do what you say.  Always.  Integrity demonstrates alignment between your actions and the organizational vision and goals.  The more aligned you are, the more productive.

Fear is a productivity killer

The impact of fear on productivity is a silent killer.  It kills motivation, creativity, and productivity.  To create a productive environment, drive out fear by making information accessible, being explicit about expectations and listen without judgment.

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