At their best, your employees are your business’ biggest strength: the wind in your sails. If you don’t get the most from them, though, they start being the anchor that drags you back.
The difference often comes down to fear.
A fearful workforce is typically unhappy and unproductive. The culture becomes toxic, and soon you’ll struggle with retention.
Here’s how to turn things around before they’re irrevocably damaged:
- Reframe performance reviews
- Change how you handle failure
- Improve communication around change
Reframe performance reviews
Performance reviews are a huge source of fear. Many companies conduct performance reviews annually, and they’re typically punitive (evaluating past performance) not inspirational (encouraging better future performance.)
In fact, only 14% of employees strongly agree that performance reviews inspire them to improve.
There are several issues with performance reviews:
- They’re irrelevant. Business needs change quickly, so the goals you review on an annual cycle are likely irrelevant by that point.
- They’re stressful. Traditional reviews are a manager-down conversation, focusing entirely on whether the employee has been good or bad. It’s human nature to fear conversations of this nature.
- They encourage an overly-competitive culture. Performance reviews often rank employees against one another and tie those rankings to rewards. This can create a culture of competitiveness and mistrust that’s detrimental to productivity.
What to do instead
Reframe how you treat performance reviews.
Instead of being a top-down, hierarchical review, create a healthy, open conversation focusing on supporting employees in their progress. Set and assess goals more often – perhaps every quarter – so these performance conversations are always relevant.
Train managers to embed plenty of positive feedback during reviews too – encourage them to keep a daily list of positive achievements so they’ve got plenty to say come review-time.
It’s crucial always to frame negative feedback as an improvement opportunity.
For example, instead of “You were late on seven mornings this month”, try “We noticed you often worked late, which shows brilliant commitment. What can we do to help you arrive on time too?”
By making performance reviews more useful, focusing on improvement over chastisement, employees will start embracing performance reviews as an essential part of their professional growth. Instead of fearing them.
Change how you handle failure
Fear of failure is one of the most common causes of fear in the workplace. In the UAE, for example, 61% of people aged 18 to 64 say fear of failure stops them pursuing good business opportunities.
Employees might worry they will underperform, miss targets, disappoint their boss and let down colleagues. They may be concerned that failure will be embarrassing, or feel they will let themselves down. They might even worry about being fired as a result of their failure.
Fear of failure is a big issue because it can mean employees don’t push themselves outside their comfort zone. They stick to the same tasks, done the same way, to feel safe. That’s a problem because it stifles innovation, creativity and problem solving.
What to do instead
Take a two-pronged approach:
- Take steps to make failure less likely
- When failure does happen, reframe it as a positive
On the first, look at minimising reasons employees might fail. Before assigning tasks, for example, make sure employees are well-prepared and have all the appropriate resources and support to go about tackling the task.
Making failure less likely helps to reduce the fear of failure, because employees will feel they’re set up for success.Then second, set a culture where failure is embraced as a learning opportunity. Brainstorm lessons learned when projects finish – and act on them. Failure is an incredible opportunity to hone your business processes to position for future success.
Don’t recognise results without recognising effort, either. If employees know you will always recognise when they’ve tried their best – even if the result is a ‘failure’, they will have less fear.
Improve communication around change
Fear of change is an almost universal trait, and the workplace isn’t exempt. It’s especially pronounced as almost every industry faces rapid disruption, so businesses are changing fast to adapt.
The problem with fear of change is that it can lead to resistance to change. If your employees are resistant to new initiatives, processes or systems, they can be actively detrimental to business growth. If change is not handled correctly, it just confirms their original suspicion that all change is bad.
It’s a difficult cycle to break – but it’s one you absolutely must break, or risk either stalling company progress or losing great people (which eventually stalls company progress too).
What to do instead
The best way to eradicate fear of change is open, honest and frequent communication. Change can be something small, like a different expenses policy, or large, like a wholesale corporate restructure. Don’t underestimate the ability of small things to evoke fear.
Fear of change is often hiding a fear of the unknown – what will my new manager expect? How will our working processes change? Reducing the unknown reduces the fear.
Help employees understand exactly what’s happening, when and why. Focus on the positives but don’t gloss or lie about the negatives.
Be honest about what you don’t know, too. That humility increases trust between senior leaders and grassroots employees – and trust counteracts fear.
For example, say your company is being acquired. Employees might be scared they will lose their jobs, be reshuffled into roles they don’t want, or find themselves answering to a new boss who doesn’t understand ‘the way things work’. Empathise with those concerns, explain what you’re doing to mitigate them, and emphasise the positive new opportunities the merger will create.
Make a safe space where employees can give anonymous feedback and make suggestions. Encouraging constant feedback (then proving you have listened) helps employees feel they have a voice, which counteracts the powerlessness which can exacerbate fear of change.
Employees who are free from fear are happier, more productive and more likely to stay working with you. These three actionable tactics will help you get there.