Updated on September 4, 2020.
Moving Beyond Fear in Today’s Virtual Workplace
Common workplace fears have been magnified by the recent very justifiable fears around COVID 19. While fear is part of our work environment and everyone’s business life, there are some extreme situations, like this one, that brings fears (real and imagined) front and center. Since ignoring or running from these fears is not a healthy nor effective strategy, we want to share some ideas that one can use to handle these new workplace leadership challenges and overcome fear. The ultimate aim is to keep focusing on creating and strengthening a more flexible and human-centered workplace culture so individuals and teams can work as effectively as possible in this time of genuine fear.
This topic is part 3 in our 6-part series on working virtually. In this series, we explore the workplace as it experiences the Pandemic of 2020, recovers from it, and use “lessons learned” to suggest new ways to innovate going forward. We’ll share our concerns and insights and discuss actions we can take now to support the workplace as opportunities for working virtually become even more commonplace.
6-Part Series on Working Virtually
- Part 1: The Virtual Workplace – Overview of the emerging virtual workplace.
- Part 2: How Emotionally Intelligent Are You? – The need for Emotional Intelligence (EQ)—now more than ever.
- Part 3: Moving Beyond Fear – Why and how to deal with fear and anxiety in the workplace.
- Part 4: Reimagining the Role of Managers & Leaders – How current challenges have led to a distinct reimagining of roles at work—especially for managers and leaders.
- Part 5: Leadership and organizational strategies —where to focus and invest now.
- Part 6: Successfully dealing with today’s multiple crises: What to do now.
Why is fear such a big problem/challenge in organizations today?
Uncertainty is always linked to fear and anxiety. Current research shows Americans (and certainly the global situation is no less intensely difficult so certainly our global co-workers are no less stressed) are more anxious and fearful than ever.
Shifting marketplace conditions make earlier change management concerns seem easier if not relatively simple tasks, and certainly less intense and directly disruptive. Old worries about declining market share seem quaint when compared to the current fear of losing any way to make a living or wondering how your industry will evolve and thrive even if things become slightly easier. Bigger problems often lead to bigger fears, but ultimately it is up to organizations and its leaders to break down the seemingly impossible into doable stacks of projects and tasks.
While most leaders are unlikely to be as pitch-perfect as Churchill during the Second World War, most can, with strength of character, authenticity, and courage, help organizations and the people in them to the other side of this current pandemic and its fearsome aftermath.
Bottom line: We believe informed action is the best response to fear, and in this post, we’ll suggest ways you can use informed action to overcome fear.
First, let’s review some important definitions.
What is fear?
Fear is an unpleasant emotion caused by the belief that someone or something is dangerous, likely to cause pain or a threat. (Oxford Dictionary) Because fear is an emotion, it can exist regardless of the “truth” or “reality” that someone or something is dangerous.
In the case of this pandemic, one of the additional challenges is the lack of clarity about what is “true” and what therefore should or should not be feared. As a leader in an organization, we recommend that you try to the extent possible to consider only the actual science related to the pandemic (or any other current economic or safety problem) as your first step in dealing with issues it has generated.
What is informed action?
Informed action is deliberate and focused activity based on sound knowledge about what you are doing. Remember, knowledge (being informed) creates the foundation for addressing fear. Action is the activity that lets you confront and overcome it. Knowledge in today’s pandemic has to be from informed and trusted scientific resources.
Again, as a leader, your focus on facts will always be a good starting point to make policy or consider options. We realize this is not always easy in our current political and economic situation, but it is paramount for any individual or leader trying to make sensible policies and lead others to move beyond fear.
Tips for Overcoming Fear in the Workplace (with Virtual Work Considerations)
Here are some QwikTips for addressing and overcoming common and new workplace fears by using informed action.
While the setting and pace of work may be turned on its head, the fear of moving decisively—a concern even in relatively safe times—must be addressed. Employees have been hit from all sides and are ready to experience more change regardless if they like or welcome them. This difficult reality makes being decisive slightly less risky which is a good thing.
Because people are more open to rapid change, doesn’t mean you should act more decisively just because you can. Show respect and act decisively as a way to help ease concerns and fears. Consider more flexibility in setting your new and evolving vision, mission, and goals. Changes in the marketplace and the workplace are fluctuating wildly. But you still have to know what your vision, mission, and goals are and how they are related to one another. So do move rapidly on continually updating clarity around work vision, mission, and goals. Here are some additional tips on how to make your next change initiative a success.
Don’t forget to involve all those who need to be part of the decision. Just because some people may be working virtually—who normally are not—this is no excuse for excluding them when shared decisions need to be made.
Key Takeaway: Act decisively as a way to help ease concerns and fears. Review results frequently and adjust your vision, missing, and goals decisively using data to guide your actions.
Improve Team Building and Delegation
Start with the end in mind—the desired result the team is chartered to achieve.
While remote teams add a level of complexity, it should not prevent building a deliberately diverse and cohesive team. If you’re not familiar with what makes a team successful do some research, talk with members of successful teams, or read a book—for example, The Wisdom of Teams. Then recognize that no leader can make things happen alone.
- Consider all of the skills and abilities that promote a successful outcome and build a team with the complementary skills needed to ensure success.
- Factor in additional time for team members to get to know each other given their distance.
- Address common workplace fears that may limit the team’s ability to be successful.
- Create employee engagement exercises that can be done via video conference to strengthen bonds.
Key Takeaway: Remember, without sharing control and involving others there is little possibility the great vision, mission, and goals you set can ever be accomplished.
Take Accountability & Seek the Truth
Ignorance may be bliss but it’s no way to run an organization, department, or project—and even when ignorance is “blissful” it’s typically short-lived.
Seek the “truth” through process—one that allows you to gain knowledge and take action. Don’t assume all the bad things happening are because of the pandemic. Make sure that your own fear doesn’t prevent you from being careful in your analysis of situations. And remind yourself that sometimes things went or are wrong due to some other reason than just today’s calamity.
Know why commitments are not being kept or taking responsibility is being tossed aside. Be open to determining unique problems of distance teams as well as time pressures and seemingly impossible goals. Then, have a process for analyzing successes and failures and use it consistently to act and be accountable for outcomes. A change in the characteristics of any team (including it having people in diverse locations) cannot be an excuse for poor performance.
Key Takeaway: In seeking the truth and sharing it, be open to various reasons for problems or issues you are facing. Place a high priority on accountability and make sure there is a solid process in place to support typical challenges but also the new challenges that come with individuals or entire teams working remotely.
Don’t Be Afraid to Take Risks
Sometimes taking risks in an already risky world can seem nothing less than stupid. But no matter the situation taking risks is part of being a great leader.
First, do the proper analysis and become knowledgeable.
- What are the actual costs and benefits?
- What steps can you take to minimize costs and maximize benefits?
Take prudent risks and put your resources behind the best chances for success. Keeping a low profile is a strategy for mediocrity and lack of achievement.
Think of failures as learning opportunities and keep learning and growing by acting. In tough times people can be a bit more open to failures as learning experiences which is a good thing. Realize that in very difficult situations taking a risk is not really a choice for those in a leadership position—progress of some sort must be made through difficulties and huge barriers. Just use your careful gathering and analysis of facts to guide your action so fear of taking more risks doesn’t stop possible progress.
As a leader especially, it’s also important that you help your team work through fear of risk.
- Let employees know that you are aware of their fears and help them overcome the natural tendency to avoid taking risks when things are tough—and even when they’re not. Engage in active problem-solving with those who have trouble addressing this issue in a straightforward way. Never forget that what employees experience every day is what you need to understand and factor into your decision-making process as a leader.
- Model risk-taking yourself and share with others in your team how you worked through the fear you had.
Key Takeaway: Realize time is the most precious of commodities, so don’t waste time fearing success or failure. Engage in informed action and let the results speak for themselves. Don’t defend or brag, just use the results as fuel for your ongoing effort to be successful and move things forward. When you model smart risk-taking, you’ll also make your team more comfortable with taking risks, coming to you with new ideas, and challenging old ideas that may not work anymore.
In times of mayhem, it may seem like the perfect time to just put your head down and do things because times are genuinely frightening and require action. But in times of great fear there is an opportunity for self-reflection about your own ways of understanding and dealing with fear. And then using that insight to help you be more compassionate and honest in helping others deal with their own fear of self-knowledge.
Great leaders are self-aware and work at knowing themselves—in good times and frightening times. Being self-aware takes a very deliberate commitment to engage in self-reflection and introspection—even if the situation one is in makes it seem that any time away would be a waste of precious energy.
Great leaders know that while being self-aware is important that it’s also a foundation piece for leading others and the organization. Many people may be wondering if a stressful time is one to pause and increase self-knowledge. We believe it is and as a leader, you can model that behavior as a means of helping others.
Work on knowing what makes you nervous, fearful, and generally less than focused on achieving your goals. Know clearly what your hot points are and what gets you stuck. Start to understand how to overcome these self -imposed limitations by partnering with other leaders in the organization you admire and trust. We recommended taking time to dramatically increase your self-knowledge and your understanding of those around you.
Key Takeaway: Leaders need to be strong and courageous to work against the current tide. If you are going to accept a leadership role, you need to be strong enough to deal with your own fears so you can help others deal with theirs. As a leader you always need to speak up, follow-up, and address negative and fear-inducing emotions head-on. Employees experience fear every day. Help them overcome it.
More Tips for Overcoming Fear
- Make reading inspirational articles, books, and other materials “a must” whenever you can. Bill Gates has a new 2020 summer reading list and he’s rather busy now. Decrease the amount of down-beat thinking and complaining – counter-productive activities that have become rampant in today’s organizations. Limit negative social media and endless reading of anything that creates negative emotions.
- Be real and authentic. Be truthful about the reality of terrible consequences or the possibility that people will not be happy, calm, or satisfied much of the time. Share your own truth about what is happening in your own life and family and share stories of heroes and leaders that are inspiring you to keep moving forward even in the darkest of days. Actively use this approach as part of your cultural change strategy. The Coronavirus is here today but when it ends there will be new challenges. Be sure you’re ready to address them.
- And finally, think about your favorite pet. No matter what happened to you or your family in the last year, no matter how “scary” life, business, or personal life got, your pet stayed calm (we hope). What can you learn from that pet? There is brilliance in not over-reacting to things you cannot control and there is a compelling reason to act on things you can control.
There’s lots to do! Let’s get started!
The Coronavirus is here today, and eventually, it will end. When it does there will be new challenges. Be sure you’re ready to address them.
Thanks for reading! If you liked this topic, check out part 4 of this series focused on reimagining the roles of managers and leaders at work.