Friday, April 15, 2011

The only thing to fear...

People in Burberry sunglasses and Victoria’s Secret lingerie are seen queuing for food and handouts because they lost their jobs, their homes, and their incomes in the Global Financial Crisis. Now even their self-esteem is at risk.

Radiation spews into the atmosphere in Japan. Floods in Australia cause drowning and destruction. People are butchered in countries ruled by dictators.

Tsunamis wipe out whole communities. Earthquakes crush the centres of cities like Christchurch.

The list goes on. And for a significant number of people the daily deluge of death, destruction and bad news is overwhelming and influential in their thinking process. They create fears and concerns. Even where I live, 80m above sea level, my neighbours are asking what we would do if a tsunami hit.

For particular personality types, anxiety takes hold. And for some parents it takes a big effort to maintain a positive outlook in front of their kids who are equally vulnerable to the images they see.

And then there’s work

Add another layer: unexpected uncertainty, or sudden and alarming change at work, the place where many of us spend most of our waking hours.

Job losses, restructuring, current boss leaving, a new boss, new corporate direction or new government policy, revitalized competitors, new products, the demand for more margin and reduction in costs – add your own example to this list.

Do these work-based experiences also affect the way you make decisions and how you interact with people around you – of course they do.

Six decades ago

All these happenings remind me of the words of Franklin D Roosevelt in his Presidential Inauguration speech in 1933. Although the global context was different (then the world was in the grip of the Depression), that sense of feeling overwhelmed, fearful and hopeless was as palpable as some people are feeling today.

You’ll recall Roosevelt’s words:
“...let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyses needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.

Roosevelt was talking about the consequences of The Almond Effect® though I hadn’t described it as that yet – in fact my mother was only 3!

And his words are as relevant today

As David Ropeik says in his blog post about keeping perspective on the risks of nuclear power:

“As powerful a tool as our risk perception system is for keeping us safe in general, sometimes that instinctive/emotional system can get risk wrong, in dangerous ways.”

As you know, in our limbic system, the amygdala is responsible for our feelings of fear. It functions as a kind of psychological sentinel, scanning every situation with only one question in mind: could it harm me or not? It’s the basic survival mechanism that sets off our fight or flight mechanism.

It served us well when we were living on the savannah plains. The trouble is, it is still functioning in much the same way today.

But it is not rational thought that dictates our amygdala’s response. Rather it is an instantaneous prediction based on experiences, memories and concepts stored away over our whole lifetime from everything that happens in every minute that we live.

Fear can make a hash of our response to change or even options for consideration

Neurobiologists have shown, using fMRI and CT scans, that rational, logical decision-making is inextricably intertwined with emotions. In fact, human beings are primarily emotional and secondarily rational, so, without care, emotions call the shots in business and in life.

At work, people resist change because of their fears around job security and the unknown. Underpinning these fears are ANTs (automatic negative thoughts) that could include concerns about capability to learn new skills, previous failures, more work, more energy, having to develop new patterns and routine to name a few.

The role of the leader is pivotal

I’ve been conducting some research over many years about what people want from their leaders in times of change.
Here are a few of the items on the checklist:

* to feel included
* to be treated with respect
* the truth
* WIIFM and to know where they fit in
* proof that the changed approach will work
* clarity of objectives and goals
* reasons for the change
* picture of what success looks like
* acknowledgement of past efforts and skills

The challenge for leaders is that often they don’t know all the answers about the change and unless they are self-aware with honed self-management skills, their own ‘almonds’ and ANTs take over. Their own fears and anxieties, even subtle ones, make a hash of their ability to make decisions, communicate wisely and lead change.

Where do you fit in all this?

So let me ask you right now to stop and reflect: does fear get in your way either at work or beyond? If I asked you to write down a list of things that could be impacting you, what would you write?

To what extent are your responses to others, your actions and words driven by your own deliberate or subconscious survival instincts?

Are you a leader who is providing what your team needs and wants from you?

Ticking the boxes of the checklist above is a great place to start.

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