Why Fear Doesn’t Work

I just got back from a conference by the NeuroLeadership Group on Results Based Coaching developed by David Rock and all I can say is, “Wow”.  Intimidation and fear have no place in the workplace; or in healthy relationships.  This may seem obvious but aren’t we all guilty of using ultimatums (eat your peas or else I’ll….)? I know I am.  We have this notion that we have to drive performance with the “whip”; much like the slave driver in the movie “The Ten Commandments”.  As Dan Pink has illustrated in his book “Drive”, unless it’s really the type of straight forward, non-thinking kind of work; threat will not drive performance. hebrew slaves building Rameses city_thumb

Paul McGinniss, an outstanding trainer for the NeuroLeadership Group, illustrated this in the training by suggesting that if the leader says “create or else”, you aren’t going to drive performance.  He also said that it takes five “towards or reward” feedback to counteract one “away or threat” responses.  So every time you criticize your employee or your child, it’s going to take five (yes, five) positive responses to get the limbic system back to equilibrium.  And you want that equilibrium.  If the brain of your direct report or spouse is in “fear” mode (when the limbic system is lit up), there ain’t no productive thinking happening.   When was the last time you made a meaningful decision when you were under stress or fear?  Yeah. right – I thought so.  Fear is not going to drive performance.

Here are some ideas on how to diminish fear in those around you:

1. Presence.  Are you aware of how your direct report is reacting or acting at this moment?  Is he tapping his foot with a furrowed brow?  He’s under stress.  If your spouse looks preoccupied; they probably are.  When your child is on the phone and takes a moment or two to reply or to answer a simple question; they might be in the “away” state.   You can’t move on.  We can’t move on, when one of us is in fear, preoccupied or as my husband says, “too many people on my stage” (the prefrontal cortex).  Being present makes you aware.

2. Esteem check.  It’s a good idea to maintain or boost other’s self-esteem (one of the Key Principles from DDI).   Criticizing and nit picking will not enhance performance.  Your teammate will not start picking up the pace or lend you a hand when they are on the defense.  Nagging your partner about mowing the lawn or asking your daughter if she’s gained weight; will not enhance either’s performance.  A thank you or specific positive feedback, on the other hand, will help bring them back to equilibrium.  If you want enhanced performance, make sure you are boosting self-esteem.

3. Steady.  Being steady or consistent is a tenet of emotional intelligence.  Be the same boss, mother, brother or team mate on Monday as on Friday.  Try to keep the team on a steady course as well.  If you are constantly changing directions or “flip flop” on decisions, you will have the team on the back of their heels waiting for the next shoe to drop.  There are times when this is impossible, and that’s OK, just remember that it isn’t the best time to introduce a new project or expect a breakthrough with the team.  Their limbic system is lit up and they are sitting in threat mode.  Wait till the storm passes and keep a steady course.

4. Justice. Hand in hand with being consistent is handing out equal justice.  The same way you need to show up and be the same person day to day, you need to treat Sam, Suzy and Old Joe the same as well.  I’m not suggesting you be a robot but handling situations with an even hand will build respect with the team.  Your family is likely to call foul on this immediately.  If I let my son take a car alone on a weekend trip and didn’t let my daughter (this actually almost happened), your child will educate you on the discrepancy.  Trust me.  Your teammates may not.  Reflect on the manner in which you dole out punishments, rewards and delegation.  Make sure you are using equal justice.

5. Let go the reins.  Let your children, your direct reports or your teammates call their own shots.  Keep your fingers out of the pie.  As I’ve written before, delegate the monkey and let the receiver of the monkey take it from there.  Self-mastery isn’t built under the direction of micro managers.  Delegate the project, figure out the available resources and let them loose.  At some point, you have to allow that 16 year old behind the wheel and Let. Them. Go.

6. Human.  People want to be recognized as human beings.  As Patrick Lencioni wrote in “3 Signs of a Miserable Job“, “People cannot be fulfilled in their work if they are not known”.  This is one of the signs of a miserable job, anonymity.  Know your teammates children’s names, if they play a sport, where their spouse works, what their hobbies are.  You don’t need to know what they had for dinner last night or when their last dental cleaning was, just be able to stay connected.  Make sure they know they are human; that they matter.

There is no need to get wrapped up in perfection with these ideas.  Don’t worry about conquering all 6 by Monday.  Try one out a week and see if you don’t get better performance around you.  One or two tweaks in your approach can go a long way.

Rising to the Review

For many of you out there, this time of the year is when the rubber meets the road, when your boss let’s you know where you stand or, as the leader, you need to size up your direct reports.   Yep, you guessed it – The Dreaded Annual Review.  Ugh.  As a Human Resource professional, I have read thousands of annual reviews.  Some well crafted, some not.  Some meandering diatribes that serve no purpose but to prop up the author, some with one or two sentence milk toast generalizations that do little more than say “hey, you showed up for work.”images 2

I’ve wondered sometimes what would happen if we had to give an annual review to our spouse or visa versa.  I can imagine my husband saying, “Great job this year on Thanksgiving and Christmas dinner but can we back off the bell peppers for 2013?” It’s really difficult to summarize the 2080 hours of work into one or two pages of meaningful, pertinent, impactful prose.

Here are some pointers on how to survive the process:

1. Embrace.  This is going to sound counter intuitive but – try to embrace the process.  If you dwell on the dread, you will delay the inevitable and suffer the process; whether giving or receiving.   Drafting the review hours before you have to sit down and give the review will not be your best work. It will be rushed, poorly thought-out and not likely to be thorough.  If you set the intention that you look forward to the process, the end product will be all the better (and it will won’t be as painful).  If you’re about to receive a review and aren’t open to constructive criticism, you won’t be able to benefit at all from the process.

2. Document.  The traditional advice from a Human Resource professional is, “Document, document, document.”  I’m not advocating “building a file”, I’m advocating that you make detailed notes throughout the year. Many annual reviews are a reflection of what has happened in the last two months.  All the great breakthroughs and successes from last February are a faint memory.  Memorialize the high points as well as the low points; there will be both.

3. Dissonance.  Most of us look for consonance.  We look for information to back up our beliefs.  So if we think that our assistant is sloppy, we look for more information that backs up our belief that he is slipshod.  So all we will see is misspellings, input errors and crumbs on the keyboard.  Look for the dissonance; seek out neatness, examples of straightforward execution, tidiness.

4. Equilibrium.  Seek out balance.  Focusing on only negative feedback can be demoralizing.  Only “pumping sunshine” can be just as detrimental.  Most of us want to know what we can work on to get better.  In a recent training there was an excellent analogy that a tri-athlete is constantly working for better form and time.  You never “arrive” at perfection; we are all works in progress.

5. Craft. Craft the message.  Phrasing developmental feedback in the form of what the person can do “more” of is important.  As I have posted before, trying to do “less” is much more difficult to measure.  Doing “more” is proactive.  So I should suggest that my assistant be “more” detail oriented instead of being “less” sloppy.  Stay away from negating words like “but” and “however”.  They erase any words before them.

6. Eyes.  Get a second set of eyes to read what you have written.  Getting a second opinion from someone you trust is important for perspective.  Sometimes we get caught up in our own “junk”.  You could end up dwelling on Excel techniques for a third of the review and not realize that you’ve lost balance in the appraisal.   You may use euphemisms that are lost out of context.  Having a second set of eyes can help clear up the message.

I hope this has alleviated some of the dread and challenges that come with drafting annual reviews.  You can make a difference with a well crafted appraisal and investing the time to deliver a balanced, well thought out message will be appreciated by the receiver.