Improve Performance by Addressing Fundamental Fears

Despite all our focus on engagement in the last 20 years, the percentage of workers who feel fully engaged has stayed pretty steady at about 30% (plus or minus 2-3%.) But it is not all doom and gloom. There are some companies who enjoy higher engagement that lasts for extended periods of time. Many people will point to the perks that employees receive as a reason for continued engagement but that is like saying Christmas is about the gifts. Yes, it's nice to get the gifts but it's more enjoyable to see your friends and family, enjoy traditions, and watch how excited kids get. It's deeper. Sustained engagement is not transactional, it is relational. Engagement is about how people feel, not simply what they get.

For Engagement, One Emotion Matters More

Digging even deeper in to the psychology of engagement, it is about feeling safe, protected, and appreciated. When people feel unsafe, defensiveness is a natural response. If I don't feel safe, protected, or cared for...I'll take care of myself first; and if I am concerned with taking care of me, I am not concerned with taking care of my customers, my projects, or my company. Fear is one of the most powerful motivators of human behavior. Getting rid of it is the key to having an engaged workforce.

Luckily, when it comes to assuaging fears and feeling safe, people are pretty similar. Beyond the basic needs of physical safety, there are three main fears people have: a fear of being insignificant or ignored, the fear of being incompetent or humiliated, and the fear of being unlikeable or rejected. And there are some simple things you can do to help them feel safer in each of these areas.

Include Them and Give Them Purpose

Inclusion speaks to feeling significant. A feeling as though I matter. My presence. My perspective. My expertise. These things are considered important by my boss and my company. One of the best companies I ever worked for included me immediately upon joining the team. I had been there maybe a week and we had a team meeting (we had one every month) and as a topic of team importance came up, the team looked for consensus. I abstained from the discussion because in my head, I didn't have any experience to add. But the team immediately corrected my misperception and encouraged me to give my thoughts on the topic. It was the most welcoming thing I had experienced on a team and something I will never forget. I felt valued and further I felt like my opinion mattered, and by extension I mattered

To extend that, give their work and their impact meaning. If they did not do their job, what would happen? How would it impact others? Their community? The client?  Not everyone is saving the world with a cancer drug or clean water to 3rd world countries - but everyone's job has an impact (if it doesn't, why does the role exist?) Let your people know their work matters. When they do a good job, how does it affect things? When things come up short, how does it make things harder for others? Feedback on their impact is important. It gives them purpose and a sense of significance.

Oh, and if you are thinking of some kind of survey to "include" the voice of the employee - you need to share the results and DO something with it. Nothing tells me more clearly that I don't matter than being asked my opinion and then being ignored. I call those types of people "askholes." People who feign sincerity and ask for an opinion, then do nothing with it. Repeatedly. Employee "pulse" or engagement surveys, and exit interviews that get ignored, are worse than not asking at all. Don't be an askhole. Make your people feel like they matter.

Give Them Control and Recognition

Nothing says I trust your competence more than giving someone control. I remember the first time I got behind the wheel of a car with my parents. Was I nervous? Of course I was! Were they? You bet your ass they were! But discomfort is the price of development and growth. To grow, BOTH of parties need to feel a little uncomfortable. This is often hardest for managers to accept and why "delegation" is usually done very poorly. They either grab the wheel at the first sign of trouble (or push the phantom brake!) Or they never provide the basic knowledge to perform reasonably. The goal is to give people basic knowledge or provide guardrails for them to operate within, coach them the first couple times, then let them go.

Career development is important for providing basic knowledge and the guardrails. It shows an employee two things: 1) I think you are important and I am willing to invest in you (see above), and 2) I want to increase your competence so you can do more. The fear of being incompetent shrinks as we fill the gaps in our knowledge. As we learn and practice, we get more confident in our own competence. Giving someone autonomy in their daily tasks and increasingly larger areas of responsibility is the best way to tell them you trust them.

Also, be sure to provide recognition as they try new things. Recognition shows that you are watching when they accomplish something. Have you ever been around a young child? They want you to watch EVERYTHING. When they jump from one couch to another. Throw a paper airplane. When they learn some new facial contortion. As adults, we get numb to the things that astonish our kids. The same can be said for becoming a subject matter expert or having a ton of experience. We get numb to the things we learned SO many years ago. If you want your people to feel more competent and keep trying new things (that's called PROGRESS) never miss an opportunity to be there with a word of recognition when your employees look up to see if you notice their efforts. And put yourself in their shoes, what is an accomplishment to them? They may not be asking for you to watch them all the time but they notice when you see their accomplishments, and even more importantly, they notice when you don't. (And trust me if you are not watching what your employees are capable of, other employers ARE) 

Appreciate Who They Are (not just what they do)

Not everyone wants hugs, personal notes, or public celebration - but everyone has a desire to be likable. Not necessarily liked by everyone, but likable. This can often be a tough one because it is about getting personal. To get things rolling, be open about your own idiosyncrasies and be authentic so people feel more comfortable about their own stuff. Appreciating people is about them, who they are (not what they do). It's about the way they think, the way they dress, the way they talk. Everyone is different. Appreciate the differences - that is what brings your company and your team value. If everyone is the same, new ideas never happen. Encouraging openness about who we are as people is a great way to appreciate what makes people different.

What is it about the way they think, act, dress that has a positive impact for them and their career or that you admire as a person? No, don't start commenting about how they look great in short skirts, or how their ass looks in those new pants. But maybe say how they always look sharp like they came out of a Brooks Brother's catalogue or stepped off the fashion runway. Or maybe how when they add a streak of color to their hair it reminds you to notice the details. Or how their smile and optimism helps keep people from getting down after a setback. Or how they continually ask "why" questions to make sure we've thought of everything. It's like pieces of the puzzle, we're all shaped differently and have slightly different images, but everyone adds something to the puzzle.

Don't try to make people like everyone else. Sure managing a cadre of automatons is easier, but it is not better. If you want to be better than the other teams or companies, find out what makes you each different and connect it to what will make you awesome. 

It's Empirical (and Imperative)

Google recently studied what ingredients of a team make them outperform others - the first crucial factor was psychological safety. Feeling safe. Safe to make mistakes, to be wrong, to express concern or opinions, to be myself, to take a risk without judgement or fear of embarrassment. Nothing tells someone they are safe to be themselves more than appreciating what makes them different, to take risks by fully trusting them to do something, and to share their perspective by letting them know they are an important and valued member of the team.

Yes, people are different and what motivates people can be tricky, but if there is commonality in helping people show up and do their best work, it starts with understanding fear and making people feel safe.

For more reading on the 3 basic fears and principles of Inclusion, Control, and Openness - see here

Dave NeedhamComment