How Fear Blocks Your Ability to Create a High-Performance Workplace

Part 1 in our Mindsets of Workplace Transformation series.

After 25 years working with individuals and organizations to transform their work and their workplaces, I can point to hundreds of ways in which the high-performance workplace has become not only more prevalent, but more healthy. Technology has made it possible for people to work from anywhere, allowing work arrangements to accommodate a wide variety of lifestyles and schedules. Hierarchies have flattened and transparency has increased, giving employees at all levels more opportunity to have an impact at work. Google, Apple and other Silicon Valley titans have made jeans and vegan cafeteria food the new norm for office environments. The rapidly growing body of research linking workplace wellness, ethical leadership, values alignment, and employee engagement to high-performance workplaces with better bottom-line profits has earned these topics a permanent place at the executive table. All of this is good.

But how well are we really doing?

Job security is a thing of the past.

While the average worker in past generations might hold 1 to 3 jobs over a lifetime, workers can now expect to have 15 to 20 jobs. The stress of keeping your resumé polished and your network strong to be able to leap to the next opportunity is the new norm.

Stress and depression are commonplace.

In the United States, depression is said to cause 200 million lost workdays each year. And the problem isn’t limited to the US; in Japan, despite efforts to curb overtime and increase work-life balance, karoshi — death by overwork — remains an all too common fixture of work life. A showed 6 in 10 people experienced an increase in workplace stress in the past year.

The majority of people dislike their work.

According to Deloitte’s Shift Index Survey, 80% of people are dissatisfied with their jobs. The 2012 Gallup State of the Global Workplace report found that only 13% of employees worldwide are truly engaged in their work, 63% are just going through the motions, and 24% are actively looking to share their misery. Spending 40 hours or more each week doing something you dislike is bound to take its toll on not only a person’s health, but on their productivity too.

It’s clear that, despite many companies’ increasing commitment to building a happy, healthy workplace, there is a disconnect between wellness initiatives and results. Workplaces worldwide continue to need transformation.

Where do we start?

Transformation can (and must) start with the individual worker. Each person must invest the time and effort to discover their purpose, develop their strengths, align with their values, and take action to create a career that energizes and inspires them. But while an individual’s choices and actions can go a long way to creating work they love, after 25 years of coaching people to find meaningful work, I’ve learned that the real key to transforming work rests on the shoulders of one group: bosses.

Unfortunately, most bosses are missing the mark.  This OfficeVibe infographic has a few choice stats to mull over:

  • 3 out of 4 employees report that their boss is the worst and most stressful part of their job.
  • 65% of employees would take a new boss over a pay raise.
  • Bad bosses cost the U.S. alone $360 billion/year in lost productivity.


The key to a better workplace is a mindset shift.

Make no mistake: while bosses wield the power to make work a living hell, they also hold the key to making work rewarding, healthy and free from negative stress. A good boss aims to build a workplace that energizes and challenges employees to reach their full potential. Despite the above statistics, many leaders have the intention to be a good boss and create happy, high-performance workplace. They are simply unaware that their day-to-day actions, reactions and decisions are being driven by a part of their brain that is stuck in the past. They are driving from a Survive Mindset.

Do you have a tendency to keep your nose to the grindstone, uphold the status quo, invest a lot of energy to ensure you don’t screw up, or blame others when things go wrong? These are all symptoms of a Survive Mindset.

Leaders with a Survive Mindset are driven by the desire to stay safe and comfortable.

Leaders and employees mired in a Survive Mindset are not so much motivated by success as they are goaded by fear. They focus on avoiding problems rather than creating happiness or planning for excellence. If you are one of these leaders, you might tell yourself and your team that you are looking out for the security of the company, trying to prevent costly mistakes or ensuring quality. Ironically your command and control approach designed to ensure security is having the opposite effect.

The reality in the world and the workplace is that you can’t guarantee the safety and security of yourself, your business or your employees by going for the safe, comfortable, “sure thing” choice. This type of fear-based, reactive stance leads to small problems ballooning into overbearing stress as they are ignored.

Thriving in business and in life requires constantly moving out of your comfort zone, taking risks and challenging yourself.

Leaders with a Thrive Mindset are excited about pushing the envelope and figuring out ways to add value to the company, their own lives, and even to the world. This mindset welcomes mistakes as learning opportunities, encourages people to make them, and creates a culture where it is safe (and even expected) to challenge the status quo. Leaders with this mindset are excited to engage with problems, take risks, and explore possibilities, so they proactively seek out challenges to address, ensuring that fewer molehills turn into mountains. While it might feel strangely unsettling to step out of your comfort zone and lead into the unknown more often, this is a key mindset required to build both a high-performance workplace and a high fulfillment one.

Take some time this week to become aware of where you are operating from a Survive Mindset and get curious about what it would look like to choose to act from a Thrive Mindset. And please join me over the next seven posts as I explore the remaining key mindset shifts that employees at all levels can make to lead effective workplace transformation.


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