Fears are proliferating in people’s lives and in workplaces around the world today, with very detrimental results. As a psychologist I know the impact of positive and negative "affect," or mood on people and organizations.
Studies show that positive affect pumps up creativity and productivity, while negative affect (like fear) stifles it and leads to mistrust, cynicism, isolation, and competition. Not exactly the stuff we want in our high-performance organizations! No wonder Edmund Burke said: "No passion so effectively robs the mind of all its powers of acting and reasoning as does fear."
This week I read about a collaborative work of art by Gabrielle Senza that appealed to me, because it visually shows both the detriments of fear and how to conquer it. She titled it “Walk Unafraid.” It is a mock crime scene representing the often fatal effects of abuse. Physical, sexual or emotional abuse that frequently results in homicide or sometimes suicide.
She used shredded bits of shirt fabric (containing the threatening phrases victims often hear, hand scrawled on the fabric) that formed the imaginary victim’s body outline; and police barricade tape - with the empowering slogans (also contributed by victims) block-lettered on the blank side, marking off the “crime scene”.
In mounting these art installations in different places, she works with dozens of collaborators, many of whom are survivors of abuse themselves, and even with people passing by in the streets while the work is in progress. The experience has been emotionally intense and deeply empowering for all who have participated in creating these public art installations.
In the workplace we also hear threatening phrases, by bosses, peers, costumers, and the media—to mention just some. They evoke fear and paralyze the workforce. Fear of loosing a job, of being discounted, of looking “bad,” of falling short, of not understanding—you name it! The worst part is that it can create a culture of fear where everybody ends up “collaborating” to enlarge the fear, until it becomes like the “big ugly monster” of our childhood nightmares.
I wish I could shout in organizations everywhere: “Walk Unafraid!” Find ways to collaborate in a different way! Bring the “monster” down to size. Conquer the fears. FD Roosevelt, on his first Inaugural Address, March 4, 1933 said: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified, terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”
The good news is that just like Fear is contagious, so is courage. Billy Graham said: “Courage is contagious. When a brave man takes a stand, the spines of others are stiffened.” Leaders need to stand up with courage and conquer fear, leading their organization by example into the kind of actions that will bring positive results. I propose that to conquer fear we need 4 A’s: Awareness, Analysis, Alternatives, and Action.
Awareness comes first. You have to come to grips with reality. You can not ignore, on the one hand, the problems or challenges you have to face. But on the other hand you can not make them bigger than they are. What you don’t face tends to fester and become more complicated. If you are short on cash, that is not the time to go on an expensive departmental retreat!
Analysis is the second step. Is there any basis for the fear? What is the fear trying to tell you? Is there something you need to take care of? For example, if in your team there is a person that is awfully hard to work with no matter what you do, you will have to take care of that situation in some way.
Alternatives is what you need to turn to next. Finding more productive ways to deal with what you fear. If you think the fear relates to a lack of communication –say, you and your colleagues are fearful of some impending and unspoken change, or you're concerned about certain goals and fear the consequences of falling short—open a dialogue with whoever knows the scoop.
You'll have to initiate the dialogue, and it might feel as comfortable as an emergency visit to the doctor. But the right questions might yield information that allays fears, and working together you might find better solutions. Ideally, dialogue should be an ongoing process.
This is especially important when rumors are swirling around the organization. Reality can get pretty distorted and feed fear. Don't settle for the easy way out of silence. Approach people and tell them the truth of the situation. Uncertainty is worst than bad news. And maybe the news are not as bad as people fear. Then work together to find alternative ways to not only survive, but thrive.
Finally, unless Action is taken, you and your organization will not be able to “convert retreat into advance.” "Walking Unafraid" means facing your worst fears and still taking action. On June 6 1944, Brigadier General Norman Cota was the assistant divisional commander of the United States 29th Infantry Division at Omaha Beach, Normandy.
The landing at Omaha has gone down in history as one of the most difficult and bloody. When the troops were paralyzed by fear and dying in droves at the beach, facing what seemed like an impossibility to advance, he shouted: “There are only two kinds of people on this beach: those who are dead and those who are going to die. Now, let’s get the hell out of here!” Under his command, the fearful soldiers started getting on inland, and by nightfall the beachhead was secure.
Action, even fearful action, leads to results. The men at Omaha could finally walk unafraid because they had started walking while they were terrified. Action eventually dislodged fear. Paraphrasing him, In the present economic climate, there are only two kinds of organizations: those who have failed, and those that are going to fail unless they start taking courageous action that will move them forward!
On each step, while becoming aware, analyzing problems and finding alternatives, developing ideas and improvements, and making decisions, work together. Involve more people. There's no better way to prevent or dissolve fears. Co-creators can become a sort of "truth squad" that conquers fear with the right kind of action for success. Stand tall, and Walk Unafraid!