“What’s the difference between a stalking lion in the bush and your boss? Nothing!” Of course, if you are fortunate enough to have a supportive, trust-based relationship with your manager this isn’t the case. However, for people on shaky ground with a direct supervisor, experiencing a difficult conflict with a colleague, or stressing over uncertainty about their place in the organization, an fMRI reading the pattern of firing synapses in your brain may not know the difference.
This is because our neurobiology has evolved to form a direct correlation between the level of perceived threat we face and the degree of fear we experience. In the case of mortal danger, the fear is healthy as our survival instincts proceed along the fight, flight, or freeze continuum of reactions. However, when subtler perceptions of uncertainty and fear surface the effect is the same. And, while a more discerning and reflective mindset could serve us better than instinctive reactions, fear can push us along the same well-worn course of action.
Daily Threats and Fears
The reality is that many employees in today’s hyper-competitive workplace feel threatened. On a typical day, the threat comes from the challenge of managing constant change, effectively collaborating with difficult colleagues, navigating confusing workplace politics, and getting great work done in an environment of shrinking resources and increasing demands. On a bad day, the threat comes from the fear that their jobs could be outsourced or automated and that someone else smarter and hungrier is right behind them.
Considering the threat, it stands to reason that many people experience a state of low-grade fear and stress every day at work. An “environment of uncertainty and fear” is definitely not a catalyst for great individual performance at work. While this condition is recognizable to many people, I believe it has been mis-classified. As evidence of declining performance and productivity mounts, workplace experts have lined up to label the cause and condition of this as chronic disengagement.
To be clear, the impacts from this are real. Disengaged workers perform less effectively overall and are more likely to fail to meet difficult priorities and miss important deadlines. Disengaged workers are more likely to cause or be associated with service failures and customer complaints. Disengaged workers are more likely to be involved in unresolved conflict at work that undermines the performance and well-being of themselves and their colleagues. And, disengaged workers are more likely to be absent, ill, and tardy and to suffer the effects of chronic stress at work.
However, employee engagement is not the problem. It is simply the presenting condition of a deeper issue that stems from a fundamental fear that so many people face as they confront challenges of working well. When a person operates in this state, superficial attempts to increase engagement, performance, and commitment through pay increases, incentive rewards, promotions, and even development opportunities fail because they cannot fundamentally alter the fear. Only an individual can do this because it is an internal process. To overcome the fear and uncertainty we face in the world of work, we need to learn to see differently.
Without a heightened attentiveness that allows us to process the present moment without the fear-reaction dictating the terms, we fail to assess effectively, which undermines our capacity to be responsive. The cost of unchecked fears that we fail to influence not only compromise the quality of our working lives in the short-term, but it has implications for our long-term employability as access to better assignments and promotions are missed. To integrate the full measure of our potential, we need to see clearly to reduce the fear.
Seeing Clearly Reduces Fear
Our ability to observe our own internal process of interpreting and making sense of our experience on the job is an important step in overcoming fear and responding mindfully to the challenges and opportunities we face. The critical tool for noticing and then challenging our assumptions about what matters is to remain present. To be present, we need to feel.
An observer’s mind will create awareness, and this awareness is the catalyst for change and a key to performance improvement of all types. Here are five strategies you can implement right now to sharpen your capacity to notice, stay present, and respond without instinctive reaction:
- Get Curious, Stay Curious – Explore the “what and why” about things without judging or concluding too much about whether they are good or bad. This spark of curiosity by nature is nonjudgmental, so it is not deterred by feelings of discouragement, uncertainty, fear, or self-doubt.
- Read Your Own Body Language – Take a beginner’s mind and really pay attention, then your own somatic processes (e.g., presence, posture, nonverbal communication, etc.) can show you more of what’s going on. Recognizing your own facial misbehavior when you hear a certain comment or noticing that you start twisting in your seat when you’re uncomfortable are just two examples of clues that something important is present.
- Look for the Underlying Dynamic – There is always much more going on below the surface than you can see. Focus on the underlying root-cause issues, values, meanings, and interests to widen your perspective. If you simply take the presenting problem for granted, you will often react to and eventually avoid or solve the “wrong problem” and miss the core barrier.
- Expect to See the Unexpected – When you challenge (and remind) yourself to “expect to see something new and different,” you free your habit of quick assumption making and put yourself in a position to recognize and respond to new possibilities.
- Muster Urgency in the Critical Moment – The critical moment is the instant of recognition when a specific attitude or behavior is reflected back to you and you focus on the barrier for what it is. Your next response in that instant marks a significant turn in how things unfold from there. The moment tends to pass quickly, and if you do not pay attention, your responses can be a knee-jerk reaction fueled by old unwanted habits and fears.
Collectively, these strategies reflect a commitment to be aware of the inner attitudes, behaviors, and decision-making processes that guide you. Because awareness is the key to making any change, you have to keep an observer’s eye in order to steadily examine and learn from what you notice. To move from observation to focused action requires mental flexibility that only comes when you feel your way through the world of work.