It’s very easy to see how fear has driven so much decision making the past 18 months. The Covid 19 pandemic killed close to 600,000 people in this country and millions more around the world. Beyond the toll on human life, it wreaked havoc on our economy. All of us know someone who lost a job or business. Even if you were fortunate enough to work through the pandemic, likely you had many anxious moments, afraid that it could happen to you.
I think it’s safe to say that no one working today has ever operated in an environment permeated with this much fear. Anyone responsible for leading people during this past year has faced unprecedented challenges, not only dealing with their own understandable fears, but those of the people they manage.
Fortunately, the virus, while not eliminated, is receding. Businesses and workplaces are re-opening and life is returning to normal. But I think as leaders it would be unwise to assume that the fears of our teams are diminishing at the same pace. Thanks to the vaccination we have good reason no longer to be as afraid of the virus, but other fears remain top of mind for many people.
I would argue as professionals and as leaders our greatest challenge right now is rooting out fear from ourselves and our workplaces. Now, more than ever, is not the time for cowards.
I want to be clear, to be afraid is to be human, the emotion is hardwired into our systems. There’s nothing wrong with being afraid, I’m not suggesting those who feel fear are cowards. Both the coward and the courageous experience fear. The difference between the two is what they do with it. No one achieves anything when they operate from a place of fear. Fear is the minefield all of us must cross on the path to success. The coward turns away, never willing to take the risk, while the courageous advances forward despite their fears.
There is no one more courageous animal in our economy than the entrepreneur. The pandemic destroyed so much but from that wreckage there are unprecedented opportunities. A record number of businesses have opened since Covid hit. Whether out of necessity or because the YOLO reminder the virus presented, so many are moving past their fears and taking the leap. Those willing to take the leap should be celebrated and nurtured. Maybe you’re thinking about venturing out on your own but can’t make up your mind. Take inspiration from those who have already made the leap and don’t let the moment pass you by.
But there is an urgent need for courage in our corporate structures as well. The virus changed how we work forever, and established companies have an unprecedented opportunity to use their resources to serve and create value for customers in exciting new ways. As well as embrace the best parts of our mass remote work experiment to improve work/life balance for their employees.
But it won’t happen in a culture of fear. The warning signs are easy to spot. For example, if you’re a leader and people are afraid to challenge your assumptions, you’ve created a culture of cowardice. You may think lots of head nodding in agreement to your ideas is a sign of your brilliance, but it’s more likely a danger signal for your culture. People fearful of telling you something you don’t want to hear means you potentially miss out on perspective and insight that you desperately need. It could be the difference between success and failure.
Leaders root out cowardice by creating safe environments for employees to speak their mind. Counter intuitive thinking must be heard and welcomed, especially on challenging subjects like compensation, career advancement or even remote working, without fear of reprisals. This is not to say that everyone necessarily gets a vote. Corporate structures are not democracies, for good reason. However, it’s incumbent on leaders to ensure that everyone is heard. You’d be surprised how much buy in you get from people if they’ve had a voice in the process, even if they disagree with the ultimate decision.
Regardless of where you are in your career, now is not the time to give in to fear. Stop hiding behind your screen and accepting less than you deserve. Don’t shy away from speaking your mind or giving the people who work for you a real voice. By all means don’t turn your back on chasing your dream. Covid 19 took so much from all of us in the past year, let’s not compound the damage by letting it take away our nerve too.