Are You Afraid? – Trends in Fear At Work

recite-1ahvv1gThroughout history leaders, including those of the military, business and state, have used fear to make people fulfil their wishes. Paul Austin, CEO of Coca Cola between 1966 and 1980, once described his management style as liking “to pull all the legs off the centipede and see what he’s really like” and saying that “a certain degree of anxiety and tension has to exist for people to function at the highest level of their potential”.

Fortunately, between our increased understanding of people and the re-balancing of power between leaders and followers (such as the ability to move and the acceptability of moving between employers, the reduction in severe poverty in states with developed welfare systems and the increased accessibility of knowledge), the majority of organisations have moved away from a fear-based model.

Now, fear can be a short-term motivator, but, as we saw with the impact of money on motivation, extrinsic motivators tend to lead to both long-term and short-term problems – and the impact of fear is much more extreme. Fear has a broad range of negative impacts, from reduced quality to distorted organisational learning and from a fear of attempting anything new (as Steve Ross noted above) to “disastrous financial performance”.

Given the above, and our own common sense, hopefully we all agree that fear is not a long term management strategy. In this article, however, I want to highlight a few trends in fear in the workplace, starting with how prevalent it is, but then focusing on people’s fear of redundancy.

Seventy Percent Believe That Raising Concerns Will Have Adverse Consequences

Fear has a number of definitions, but here I’ll keep it as broad as possible – “an unpleasant emotion caused by a threat”. There have been a number of studies that fall within this and show how amazingly common fear is in the workplace.

caution-454360_1280In one study, which involved interviewing 260 people from 22 organisations, the researchers sought to identify what percentage of individuals feared that raising on-the-job concerns may result in adverse repercussions. Amazingly, 70% of those interviewed confessed to having this anxiety. The majority of these highlighted sensitive issues that needed resolution, but which everyone is too scared to talk about. The feedback mechanism between staff and ‘management’ is essential to continuous improvement, so if 70% of staff are afraid to raise concerns then there must be substantial potential for both employers and employees.

To add to this, findings from the 2012 UK Skills and Employment Survey showed that 31% of employees were fearful of unfair treatment at work, while 52% felt anxious about losing their job.

It’s clear that fear, in some form or other, is prevalent at work. Given the negative consequences of fear and the extent of fear in the workplace, this becomes an area that we should invest in improving.

Public Sector Employees Feel as Insecure as Those in the Private Sector

architecture-2892_1280The survey mentioned above showed another trend, which, while understandable, reflects a new challenge for management within the public sector. This study took data from 5 different years – 1986, 1997, 2001, 2006 and 2012 – and compared public sector and private sector responses on a number of questions. One of these questions asked whether people feared losing their job and becoming unemployed. In 1986, 2001 and 2006 the private sector clearly feared redundancy more than those in the public sector. In 1997 (potentially in line with uncertainty due to the general election) both sectors felt equally secure/insecure. In 2012, however, public sector insecurity was significantly greater than that in the private sector. It will be interesting to see whether this trend continues, or perhaps the gap broadens further, with increased austerity.

Some might argue that this has been too long coming. and that the public sector has been far too comfortable, but, irrespective of your personal views, it represents a new challenge for those managing within government. There is an opportunity to harness this shift, particularly for people who have become too relaxed in their role and need a jolt, but it’s important to provide clarity and confidence to those who are performing well. As discussed in this post, it’s about the right approach for the right people, but there may be substantial opportunities for the public sector to learn from private sector colleagues, given their experience of handling a workforce concerned about this uncertainty.

In contrast to this, fear of unfair treatment (formed of anxiety about arbitrary dismissal, discrimination or victimisation by management) was significantly higher in the private sector than the public sector throughout, suggesting learning opportunities in the other direction.

Women are Less Worried About Losing Their Job

Alongside the Skills and Employment Survey, Glassdoor run a quarterly employment confidence survey in the UK and US, giving us a much more frequent and up to date picture. Please accept my apologies for being a tad parochial, but I’m going to concentrate on the UK stats.

woman-41891_1280One of the consistent trends in both these surveys is that women are less worried about losing their job than men. Stereotypically, men are over-confident and cocky, while women often miss out on career opportunities by being overly anxious – so what’s going on?

There are a range of possible explanations, but one piece of evidence shows a clear example of a third factor being in play. Those in part-time work are significantly less worried about being made redundant – and that applies equally to men and women. However, there are a higher proportion of women than men in part time positions, so the overall women’s average anxiety level is pulled down by this higher proportion of part-time workers. I’ve not seen, unfortunately, results for men and women in similar jobs, so don’t know what the like-to-like comparison shows.

It’s worth mentioning, however, that the gap appears to be closing between men and women – while men consistently express higher anxiety about losing their job, the Skills and Employment Survey showed a much bigger increase in anxiety for women than for men between 2006 and 2012. Again there are open questions about whether changes in type of employment played a role.

As a brief aside, while men displayed less confidence in keeping their job, they consistently displayed more confidence across a range of other questions, including the positivity of their business’ outlook and the chance of them getting a pay rise.

Our Fears Fluctuate

Graph and handThe Glassdoor survey suggests that the percentage of people fearing for their job varies hugely quarter to quarter – in 2014 the results were 21% in Q1, 29% in Q2, 19% in Q3 and 35% in Q4. 2014 was, unfortunately, the first year when Glassdoor separated out UK results, so we don’t know whether this pattern of rise, drop, rise repeats year on year (e.g. could our anxiety be seasonal?) or whether being concerned is very sensitive to external factors.
Whatever the reason, it raises some questions about snapshot surveys and how useful they are for judging employee anxiety, particularly trends. It suggests we need a broader range of data (both number of people surveyed and number of surveys) than the survey above has so far, if we want to draw strong conclusions about trends. Organisations that compare year-on-year employee survey results should be aware of this high level of variation.

You’re More Likely to be Fired Than I Am

While it’s not surprising (we tend to think we’re the best at everything), it’s good to see the data – we believe that other people are more likely to be fired than we are. The Glassdoor survey shows that, despite the variation in anxiety, a consistently higher percentage of people are concerned about others being fired than are concerned about losing their own job. Over 2014, the gap was at least 7 percentage points (i.e. at least 20% more people were concerned about others’ jobs than about their own) every quarter.

None of These Fears Are Universal

tree-57119_1280To reiterate a focus from my previous post, there are different groups of people with different points of view. For example, we’re not all worried about losing our job – in Q4 2014 35% feared redundancy, leaving 65% who did not. At the same time, 39% said they would leave their job if they did not receive a pay rise in the next 12 months – presumably the majority of these weren’t feeling too negative about how their employer sees them! And we’re even optimistic about how our organisations will perform – 34% thought things would improve for their business, compared to only 11% expecting things to get worse.

What Does This All Mean? 

We’ve seen that fear negatively impacts on your business and we’ve had a look at some of the trends in fear. The statistics show that fear matters – with such a high proportion of the workforce worried about something, it’s an area where we can make a difference. We need to think about who’s afraid, how we want them to feel and how we can help staff feel more productive emotions (as well as better emotions for their own well-being).

What Can We Do?

The focus of this post has been on trends – specifically in relation to fear for losing a job, but also, hopefully, some broader learning about how we can look at phenomena.

It wouldn’t feel complete, however, without at least giving a few pointers on how to make things better (and a few links with some more detail):

  • Make self-awareness essential
  • Promote emotional intelligence
  • Encourage honest and constructive confrontation
  • Be more transparent and provide clarity where possible
  • Give up unnecessary restrictions and controls on your staff
  • Practice facing fear
  • Train on the basics – and rely on them when the going gets tough
  • Develop an open environment at work – encourage conversation, laughter and positive emotional expression.

Feel free to add more – particularly any practical examples!

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