Do You Train Leaders to Avoid These 3 Scary Offenders?

Without even realizing it, most leaders do and say things that send employees into their “Critter State” where every decision they make is driven by fear, says Christine Comaford, author of the new book Smart Tribes: How Teams Become Brilliant Together (Portfolio/Penguin, June 2013). And the consequences are more dire than you might realize.

Most leaders know that management by “command and control” is dead and that fear doesn’t motivate employees. Quite the opposite, in fact. That’s why, for the most part, we refrain from doing scary things. Yet, according to Comaford, even good leaders unintentionally strike fear in the hearts of their workforce.

“From time to time we all say or do things that spark unconscious fears in our employees,” says Comaford. “The primitive ‘fight, flight, or freeze’ part of the brain takes control. When that happens, when people are stuck in what I call the “Critter State,” all they can focus on is their own survival.”

In other words, everything that makes them good employees—their ability to innovate, to collaborate, to logically think through problems—goes out the window. All decision making is distilled down to one question: “What course of action will keep me safest?”

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So how might we be inadvertently holding back our teams and crippling our own cultures? What, exactly, are we doing to send our people into their Critter States? More to the point, what are you doing? Comaford describes a few (very subtle) offenders:

  1. You “help them out” by giving them solutions. Or, in Comaford’s words, you advocate when you should be inquiring. When we consistently tell people what to do instead of encouraging them to figure things out on their own, we develop a company full of order-takers instead of innovators. By training them to always ask, we create a workforce of employees who are perpetually “frozen” in their Critter State.

On the other hand, when we engage them in solving problems themselves, we create a sense of safety, belonging, and mattering—which Comaford says are the three things humans crave most (after basic needs like food and shelter are met). And of course, we help them develop a sense of ownership that will serve them—and the company—well.

  1. Your meetings are heavy on sharing and point-proving, and light on promises and requests. Why might a meeting scare your employees? Because confusion and uncertainty create fear, says Comaford. Meetings that are rambling and unfocused send people into the fight-flight-freeze of the Critter State. On the other hand, short, sweet, high-energy meetings that have a clear agenda keep everyone in their Smart State.

Ideally, you should focus on only enough information-sharing in order to solicit requests from parties who need something and promises from parties who will fill that need.

“Tune up your communication and the result will be meetings that are efficient and effective, and that keep your team happy and clipping along to glorious accountability and execution,” promises Comaford.

  1. You give feedback to employees without first establishing rapport. Imagine for a moment that your employees are antelopes. Because you have authority over them, they quite naturally view you as a lion. It’s not that you’re purposely ruling with teeth and claws. It’s simply their critter brains at work, peering out and “coding” who is a friend and who is a foe. That means unless you can get employees to see you as “just another antelope,” you won’t be able to influence them—they’ll be too busy ensuring their own survival to accept your feedback.

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In tomorrow’s Advisor, we’ll look at the last 2 scary offenders—plus present a comprehensive, ready-to-use, online training resource available now.

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