Psychology Today

By Judith E. Glaser
Published in:  Psychology Today

On Oct. 31, 2017, a tragedy occurred in New York City and I was within blocks of where it happened downtown in lower Manhattan. Eight people were run down by a terrorist while riding their bicycles on a bike path. This person has now been called an ISIS terrorist. He was living with his wife in Edison, NJ, since 2010. Six of those killed in this horrible crime came from other countries—one from Belgium and five from Argentina. All of them were visiting the U.S. on a holiday. According to the news, the terrorist was an Uzbekistan native who was using an "ISIS playbook" and radical Islam actions to fulfill this intention to kill. What we learned this morning is that this person was an Uber driver.

If there is one grand universal truth about true leaders, it is this: even in the worst of times, leaders convey hope, optimism, and positive energy—often based in faith in the future, in a vision of a better tomorrow, or in a passionate mission or sense of higher purpose—as they seek to ensure the success and sustainability of the enterprise.

The news interpreting this horrible terrorist action has been taking the most positive interpretation of this profound tragedy. Bill de Blasio, the Mayor of NYC, and Mayor Andrew M. Cuomo, NY’s Governor, used powerful uplifting storytelling as they described how New Yorkers handled this terrible event yesterday by staying strong, staying together, and feeling united around a common goal. Hundreds of thousands of people came out last night to celebrate Halloween and to show their strength about their ability to withstand this unexpected terrorist threat and stand strong together. 

This paragraph is too glib when talking about people being killed—my opinion. And yet where I work in mid-town Manhattan, I see many people with a look of fear on their face. I suspect also you see fear where you live and work. Far too many people worldwide live and work in fear, in a perpetual state of worry. How can we cope with the fear and our sense of vulnerability that can be generated by the City around us? But hope springs eternal and makes the case for optimism. 

A Universal Vaccine for Fear

My vaccine for fear is grafting Conversational Intelligence© (C-IQ) into everyday life, and learning about manifesting it in new and powerful rituals that prime the brain for trust, partnership, and mutual success.

Freedom from Fear

Our leaders can help. Leaders need to ensure that fear does not consume us. Fear often sets in motion a chain of reactions and circumstances that affect the way we think and act. One way to reduce fear is a focus on elevating direct and clear communication and eliminating mixed messages —the catalytic driver of fear. How you manage fear determines the level of performance that you, and at work, the performance your team and organization achieve. As a leader, you can shape the experiences people have by reducing fear and self-focus. How? By creating cultures that facilitate the core reason why Conversational Intelligence needs to be the way we have conversations globally - enhanced sensitivity, mutual support, and vital communication. Governor Cuomo and Mayor de Blasio did just that. They were honest; they were direct in the communication; they provided context to what had happened. They led the way in helping many New Yorkers decide to fight the fear that a random act of terrorism had caused.  

What can we, as business leaders, learn from our elected Mayor and Governor?

As a Leader, Are Your People Afraid? I’m talking about something visceral: anxiety or angst caused by the concern that something drastically harmful will happen—like a layoff, firing, pay cut, or demotion.

Everyone is somewhat fragile at the core. We worry that tomorrow may be our last day. Uncertainty and volatility induce fear, and fear impedes people from feeling their best and doing their best work.

How can you, as a leader, reduce or eliminate fear?

Here are five ways:

1. Be present.

Your people spend inordinate time watching everything you do. If you’re almost always behind closed doors, don’t seem to listen during conversations, spend a lot of time reminiscing about the way things used to be, or talk about a future that seems disconnected to the present, people will read things into your actions and words; and typically, what they imagine isn’t positive. To make yourself present in the eyes of your reports, you need to open yourself to others by being tuned into your relationships. You may need to have a talk you didn’t plan on having with a staffer. Or you may get sidetracked by needy employees who distract you from grand thoughts. Welcome to life in the big city. Business is about people. It’s first and foremost about how we handle our relationships with others. Relationship before task—and then we can get down to doing business.

2. Tell people where they stand.

As leaders, we resist doing telling people where they stand because we fear it will lead to broken relationships, feelings of rejection, and messes we can’t fix. So, we don’t raise certain issues. Yet people need and want to know where they stand so they can do something about it. Once they know what you think about them, they often discover that their imagined fears were much worse than reality. When we live in fear, we withdraw, build our own story of reality, imagine others are out to get us, and react accordingly. We stop turning to others for help and stop taking feedback and advice from others. Learning to give healthy feedback, and give people new insights about how to grow their skills is a gift from managers to their direct reports, peers, and colleagues.

3. Transform universal fears into universal desires.  

Universal fears include the fear of being excluded—so we create networks and exclude others first. Being rejected—so we reject first. Being judged unfairly—so we criticize and blame others. Failing—so we avoid taking risks and making mistakes. Losing power—so we intimidate others to get power. Feeling stupid— so we either don’t speak up or speak too much. Looking bad in front of others—so we save face. When we perceive the world through a lens of fear, our egos drive us to develop habit patterns of protection. Over time, we incorporate defensive behavior patterns into our daily rituals and routines and don’t even realize we are living with those defensive behavior patterns every day. We turn away from others when we are coming from protective behaviors, rather than turning to others for help. Learning how to focus on our Universal desires focuses our brain toward winning moves we can learn to use every day to change our workplace environment. Universal desires include the desire to be: included on a winning team, to be appreciated, successful, powerful, creative, smart, and influential; to have a leadership voice with meaning and purpose; to learn, grow, and explore.

4. Provide context in every communication.

A picture with a frame becomes a different picture. Without background, fear can be elevated by confusion and uncertainty. A technology company I’m working with is growing rapidly. Sales have tripled in two years and now top $1 billion. The CFO, in anticipation of such growth, told his staff: “Go out and hire your replacement.” He thought his message was clear: “I want you to hire someone capable of filling your shoes because with all this growth—and how wonderful you all are—I anticipate promoting each of you.”

But his staff heard a different message: “Hire your replacement because none of you are good enough and you all will be fired soon.” Not surprisingly, his employees grew anxious. Morale and performance suffered. When I explained to the CFO what his people had heard, he instantly understood what he had done. He called a meeting to explain that he wanted his people to go out and search for their own replacements as part of planning for the future and to make it easier for him to promote them when the time was right. Putting this context around the statement made people feel good about themselves and the company—and more secure about their role in the growth process. Not surprisingly, fear receded and performance improved. Context can make things that are bad seem right—or at least far less worrisome.

5. Use honesty at all times.

No one likes to tell the truth when it hurts someone or makes that person look bad. So, we fudge. As adults, we should know better. Often, we don’t. When the truth surfaces, the impact is twice as bad as it would have been without the fibs. At all times, tell the truth—tactfully and within the appropriate context. Context, in this case, does not mean spin. Don’t make a situation sound better than it is, even if you can. As a leader, you can have no greater resource than a high-performing team. If you are honest, you’ll admit that there are times—maybe far too often—when the people who work for you are not producing their best work. Check to see if fear is one of the reasons. Have conversations with them – truthful conversations – and they will feel infinitely better, their cortisol will drop significantly and you and the team will coalesce around truthful, honest conversations as your ‘new norm.’

Fear is a common but counterproductive response to uncertainty. When fear dominates, the creative brain shuts down. When fear dominates, the primitive brain takes over, releasing cortisol and catecholamine’s—hormones released during emotional or physical stress. These chemicals shut down the brain’s prefrontal cortex, or executive functions, which enable sophisticated strategies. Instead of responding intelligently and creatively to people and situations, you freeze, coming across as dumb or defensive.

The solution is to acknowledge the fear. That frees people to change the channel. Instead of protecting themselves they can pay attention to what is going on in others and manifest compassion. A compassionate leader asks others: How can I help you? This question opens up our prefrontal cortex to help ‘Down-Regulate’ cortisol and lower the activation levels of the Amygdala. The people they’re speaking with will feel that positive neural connection and cooperate. We are wired with mirror neurons which pick up everything going on in others' brains. When we approach people with compassion, the mirror neurons in their brains synch with our own, and they feel understood and open to our influence.

WE-centric leaders lift people out of fear, frustration, and anger—emotions that cause people to disengage from each other. When people feel disconnected, they become reactive, fearful, and project their anxiety onto others, creating more fear, blaming others for what is missing in their lives, rejecting first to avoid being rejected, and disengage. Reflect on these five pivotal Conversational Intelligence tips for becoming a powerful leader who is poised to bring new levels of hope in the face of fear. The more you make this shift and refocus your own brain toward hope over fear, the most your C-IQ Quotient will go up and the more you will elevate your leadership success!

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