Fear is one of the most destructive emotions in the workplace. When we come from a place of fear, we are more likely to be defensive, find fault in others, blame ourselves, and tell ourselves a story about that fear that is most likely inaccurate. We tend to focus on the fear rather than doing more beneficial things such as completing a task or building a relationship. What’s more, there probably isn’t a single person in your organization that doesn’t feel fear each day (or its close cousins…worry and anxiety). Fear, if not overcome, is unhealthy because it robs people of their potential and creates a stressful and unproductive work environment.
In my experience, change is one of the biggest drivers of fear. Even though we experience change constantly, we fight it tooth and nail. Our brains expect certain things to stay the same and when they don’t, the information we trusted has broken down causing us fear over what comes next. What we don’t know tends to scare us and change creates a lot of unknowns.
That’s why, as a leader, it’s so important to explain the WHY. The WHY behind the change gives people context and helps them understand the reason behind WHAT is changing. Once the brain knows the WHY, it can start building a new story, one that is (hopefully) more accurate.
Along the way, I’ve learned that just because you share the WHY doesn’t ensure that everyone understands it. Speaking articulately and accurately in front of an audience, in meetings, or one-on-one can be incredibly difficult. Not only must you think about the meaning and tone behind your words, but you must also understand who your audience is and what is going to resonate with them. Something that has helped me, especially in crucial conversations where change is significant and stakes are high, is to write out what I am going to say. I actually write out every word I want to say. This may or may not work for you but at the very least have a bullet point list of what needs to be conveyed.
Another important step is to try to predict questions, concerns, and push back so you can either work them in your dialogue in advance or so you are prepared when someone speaks up. Anticipating where things could go wrong is so often overlooked…especially by overly optimistic people such as myself. But identifying obstacles and push back can not only prepare you to think on your feet but also helps you come up with a plan to overcome them and deliver an effective WHY message.
Lastly, commit to following up with whomever your audience is. What you say and what people hear are often very different. It’s important to do this even when the WHY message isn’t high stakes (practice makes it a habit). Remember that different things trigger different people. You might be wanting to slightly tweak a person’s role and he might hear that his entire job is changing. He immediately stops listening because his brain goes into “fear of change” mode. He may nod and act like he understands and then walks away anxious and angry.
Following up can be as simple as waiting a day and asking if he has thoughts and/or concerns about the discussion. Make time to sit down in a quiet space and listen intently to what he has to say. Ask questions to get to the heart of the matter. If your audience was bigger, perhaps having a small, departmental, or team meeting can air concerns. One thing I am going to try in the near future is a departmental town hall meeting where people can anonymously submit questions in advance and I will answer them with honesty and candor (I know this isn’t new but I haven’t done it before). Taking this feedback with gratitude and grace (aka don’t get defensive) is critical and I’ll write more on this in the future.
If there is one thing you do as a manager or leader, it shares the WHY as often and openly as possible. Even if it seems benign, people ALWAYS want to know the WHY behind what they are doing. It makes them feel in-the-know, part of the solution, and safer.