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Five Mistakes Leaders Unknowingly Make That Scare Employees To Death

by Christine Comaford, author of “SmartTribes: How Teams Become Brilliant Together

Most leaders know that command & 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. (Only the worst “bully bosses” make it a practice to scream at an employee, or call him abusive names, or threaten to fire him the next time he makes the coffee too strong.) Yet even good leaders unintentionally strike fear in the hearts of their workforce.

More accurately, we strike it into their brains. And the consequences are more dire than you might realize.

From time to time we all say or do things that spark unconscious fears in our employees. 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?

Obviously, we need our employees to be in control of their whole brain — especially the parts responsible for the emotional engagement and intelligent decision-making that lead to high performance. Today’s economy demands it. That’s why my business — teaching leaders how to use the best tactics from neuroscience to get teams unstuck and shift them into their so-called “Smart State” — is booming. I regularly see clients who master these techniques and quickly see their revenues and profits increase by up to 200 percent annually. It just goes to show how pervasive fear in the workplace actually is — and how crippling it can be.

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? Here are a few (very subtle) offenders:

You “help them out” by giving them solutions.

Or, in other 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 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.

Start inquiring and see what happens. Ask, ‘How would you do it? What impact might your course of action have?’ After you do this a few times with someone, she’ll start expecting you to ask questions instead of give orders. She’ll start coming to you with ideas, seeking feedback and validation. And after a few of these sessions, she’ll come to you saying, ‘I have a plan, here it is, and speak now if you aren’t okay with it.’ Finally, she’ll stop coming to you altogether.

Aim for five inquiries for every advocacy. You’ll be amazed by what a powerful difference this makes in your employees and your company.

Your meetings are heavy on sharing and point-proving, light on promises and requests.

Why might a meeting scare your employees? Because confusion and uncertainty create fear. 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.

The key is to understand the five types of communication:

– information-sharing

– sharing of oneself

– debating, decision-making, or point-proving

– requests

– promises

The typical meeting is heavy on the first three and light on the last two. 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.

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.

I’ve a wealth of neuroscience tactics for helping leaders get inside their employees’ heads and truly establish rapport. Most of them are too complex to convey in a short article (Meta Programs are one of the most potent), so here are three “shortcut” phrases that help people feel safe enough to shift out of their Critter State:

1. “What if…”: When you use this preface to an idea/suggestion, you remove ego and reduce emotion. You’re curious — not forcing a position, but kind of scratching your head and pondering. This enables someone to brainstorm more easily with you.

2. “I need your help.”: We call this a dom-sub swap, because when the dominant person uses it, they are enrolling the subordinate person and asking them to rise up and swap roles. This is an especially effective phrase when you want a person to change their behavior or take on more responsibility.

3. “Would it be helpful if…”: When someone is stuck in their Critter State and spinning or unable to move forward, offering up a solution will help them see a possible course of action or positive outcome.

You focus on problems rather than outcomes.

First, a little background: I teach my clients there are three default roles that people lean toward — Victim, Rescuer, or Persecutor. (These were first created by Dr. Stephen B. Karpman, and his article detailing these roles won the Eric Berne Memorial Scientific Award in 1972.)1 These roles are interdependent (there must be a Persecutor for there to be a Victim for the Rescuer to save) and they play out every day in the workplace.

Together these roles make up the Tension Triangle — and when we’re in it we’re problem-focused. We see everything as a problem, which causes anxiety, which leads to a reaction, which leads to another problem. It’s a self-perpetuating cycle. The solution is to switch your focus from problems to outcomes. Instead of asking ‘What’s wrong?’ and ‘Why is this happening?’ we ask ‘What do we want?’ and ‘How will we create it?’.

Being outcome focused feels very different. It’s empowering and energizing and fills you with confidence. It firmly places you in your Smart State, where possibility, choice, innovation, love, and higher consciousness are abundant. Victims become Outcome Creators. Rescuers become Insight Creators. Persecutors become Action Creators. (Comaford has a chart that lays out the differences.) So… how do you make the switch?

First, identify each role that you and the other person are playing. Speak to the other person as the positive counterpart. If he’s in Victim mode and you tend to be a Rescuer, don’t say things like ‘I’ll make it better for you’ or ‘Let me help you.’ Instead, say, ‘What outcome would you like?’ and, ‘What will having that do for you?’ If you do this in every conversation, and teach others to make the shift as well, you will transform your cultures and quickly start getting the outcomes you want.

You frame “change” the wrong way.

Almost all leaders want — probably need — their companies to change. It’s the only way we can achieve growth. Yet as we all know, people inherently resist change. In fact, according to Rodger Bailey’s groundbreaking work on Meta Programs in the workplace, 65 percent of Americans can tolerate change only if it is couched in a specific context (see Shelle Rose Charvet’s excellent book on Meta Programs, “Words That Change Minds: Mastering the Language of Influence“, for a deep source on Rodger Bailey’s work3). That context is “Sameness with Exception”.

What does this mean? Essentially, it means leaders need to present the “change” as merely an improvement to what we are already doing: The bad stuff is being removed, and good stuff is being added.

Seriously, this is the best way to package a change message. And don’t use the C-word. Say ‘growth’ instead.

By the way, resistance isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s just the first step on the organizational path. The other four steps are Mockery, Usefulness, Habitual, and New Standard. But once you can clear the resistance hurdle — and it will go fairly quickly when you present change the way I just described — you’re well on your way.

Did you recognize your own leaders — even yourself — in the list above? If so, you’re not alone. And the good news is that once you can make the (relatively simple) changes, you are likely to see dramatic improvements in your results.

All leaders want to outperform, outsell, and out-innovate the competition. And most of us have teams that are quite capable of doing so. We just need to stop scaring the competence out of them.


Christine Comaford is a global thought leader who helps mid-sized and Fortune 1000 companies navigate growth and change, an expert in human behavior and applied neuroscience, and the bestselling author of “Rules for Renegades : How to Make More Money, Rock Your Career, and Revel in Your Individuality“. Her latest book,”SmartTribes: How Teams Become Brilliant Together“, will be released in June 2013. She is best known for helping CEOs, boards, and investors create predictable revenue, deeply engaged and passionate teams, and highly profitable growth.




This is an article contributed to Young Upstarts and published or republished here with permission. All rights of this work belong to the authors named in the article above.

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