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Utah Business

The Fear Of Being Fired Is Real (& It Could Be Affecting Your Employees)

Brandon Rodman, CEO and cofounder of Weave thinks his employees shouldn’t be afraid of getting fired. “When people feel confident in themselves and safe in their surroundings, they’re primed to lean into creative problem solving and innovation,” says Rodman. “No one should feel like they’re going to be shut down or interrupted for offering their take on things.”

“Our success at Weave hinges on our employees’ ability to autonomously take charge and do what’s best in the name of our company, and feel confident sharing their insights,” says Rodman. “Without a commitment to supporting the personal growth of each of our employees, our progress would stagnate and our customers would suffer.” 

The term “team psychological safety” was coined by Amy Edmondson of Harvard in 1999. In her TEDx Talk on the topic, Edmondson talks about people second-guessing themselves all the time in the modern workplace. No one, she says, wants to look ignorant, incompetent, intrusive, or negative. By the time we all grow up to be working adults, this strategy becomes second nature, but it poses a problem in the workplace. Why? Because every time we withhold, we’re robbing ourselves and our colleagues.

What happens when an employee doesn’t feel safe

According to Whitney Johnson, an executive life coach who specializes in C-suite leadership,  psychological safety is knowing that “when you make a mistake, you’re not going to get killed dead.” If employees feel safe, they’re able to create and they’ll be much more productive because that’s where innovation comes from, she says. “If not, they go into the cave emotionally, and all their energy goes into making sure they’re protected.”

Not all employers, however, want employees to feel safe. Some employers intentionally create an insecure environment, mistakenly believing that placing additional demands and stressors on employees will increase performance. “When companies use job security as a stick as opposed to a carrot, it backfires because [workers] lose their feeling of commitment,” says William Schiemann, CEO of Metrus Group, an organizational research firm in Somerville, New Jersey. The tactic can break down trust in the workplace.

According to the American Institute of Stress (AIS), “Numerous surveys and studies confirm that occupational pressures and fears are far and away the leading source of stress for American adults and that these have steadily increased over the past few decades.” 

Apparently, the AIS isn’t alone in their findings the “Stress…At Work” report from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) says the “nature of work is changing at whirlwind speed.” Now, more than ever before, job-related stress is posing a threat to the health of our nation’s workers, which in turn, directly affects the health of our organizations. 

“Some employers assume that stressful working conditions are a necessary evil— that companies must turn up the pressure on workers and set aside health concerns to remain productive and profitable in today’s economy. But research findings challenge this belief, showing that stressful working conditions are actually associated with increased absenteeism, tardiness, and intentions by workers to quit their jobs—all of which have a negative effect on the bottom line,” says the report. 

Some of the first signs of job stress include health and job complaints, low employee morale, and a high turnover rate. But sometimes, there aren’t any obvious clues, especially when employees are afraid of losing their jobs. “Lack of obvious or widespread signs is not a good reason to dismiss concerns about job stress or minimize the importance of a good prevention program,” says the report. 

According to the “Attitudes in the American Workplace VII” survey, “The vast majority of American workers say they are stressed, more than a third say that their job is harming their physical or emotional well-being, 42 percent say job pressures are interfering with their family or personal lives, and half report more demanding workloads than they had a year ago.” 

I wish I ran across more positive findings, but the remaining statistics from the survey are less than reassuring. A whopping 80 percent of workers experience stress on the job, 73 percent of workers said they did not want their boss’s job, 30 percent said their job conditions were at times unpleasant or unsafe, and 36 percent said it was at times difficult to express their opinions or feelings about job conditions to superiors. 

Per the AIS, “A 1999 government study reported that more jobs had been lost in the previous year than any other year in the last half-century, and that the number of workers fearful of losing their jobs had more than doubled over the past decade. That was several years ago and the problem has worsened considerably since then. 

“A February 2000 poll found that almost 50 percent of employees were concerned about retaining their job and with good reason. There were massive layoffs due to downsizing and bankruptcies, including the collapse of over 200 companies.” 

How companies can promote psychological safety (and why they should)

A while back, Google set out to understand what factors unite to create “the perfect team.” The project,  Project Aristotle discovered that “of the five key dynamics of effective teams that the researchers identified, psychological safety was by far the most important. The Google researchers found that individuals on teams with higher psychological safety are less likely to leave Google, they’re more likely to harness the power of diverse ideas from their teammates, they bring in more revenue, and they’re rated as effective twice as often by executives.” 

The study found that when team members have psychological safety, they feel safe to take risks and allow themselves to be vulnerable in front of each other. This is the magic sauce that A-teams are made of. What I ultimately learned from my research is that employers can’t expect creativity and innovation to thrive in workplaces plagued by fear, whether it’s intentionally manufactured by the employer or a byproduct of poor leadership. 

As someone who’s had first-hand experience with the fear of being fired years ago, I can still feel the angst like it was yesterday. Since work-related stress, including the constant fear of being fired, is a widespread problem that all employers should be aware of, I wanted to know how it negatively affects employees at work, and outside of work. To that end, I tracked down Darcy Gruttadaro, director of the Center for Workplace Mental Health, a leg of the American Psychiatric Association Foundation.

 She offered a lot of valuable input on the subject: “When an employee is subjected to a constant state of fear, it taxes a person’s physical and mental health. This taxing experience can cause people to develop anxiety, depression, and other concerning health issues.

According to Gruttadaro, there are several factors that cause employees to fear losing their jobs. Specifically, not getting adequate feedback from a manager or supervisor, not getting adequate support to succeed from a manager or supervisor, not having a clear understanding of the employee’s roles and responsibilities, uncertainty about whether the employee is performing well in their position, and working in a workplace culture that does not support open communication. 

When I asked how employers can encourage psychological safety, she suggested creating a culture where managers are well-trained to recognize signs of high rates of stress, and to ensure leadership supports the creation of an organizational culture that avoids exposing people to high rates of stress. 

As an employer, she says: “Provide employees with stress management and resiliency training. Evaluate the organization’s commitment to addressing the factors identified [above] that contribute to stress, and include questions about stress in employee surveys. Examine organizational policies to ensure they address reducing stress in employees. Post information about stress reduction on the organization’s intranet.” 

Finally, she recommends ensuring that employees know about the organization’s EAP as a resource and work with the EAP to jointly develop innovative approaches to reducing excessive stress. “This is our nation’s workforce of the future so employers should be prepared to effectively address mental health in the workplace or to suffer the costs,” she says.

“As a manager, psychological safety is important so that the entire team feels safe and open to contributing to be their best. If people are in their shells, you will never get the best work from them and chances are, their time at the business will be cut short. People can only go so long in an environment when they don’t feel psychologically safe, says Kory Stevens, CEO and founder at TAFT. 

“I have been in environments when I felt safe and unsafe to share ideas, to take risks, and to contribute. When people feel safe, ideas flow, innovation happens, problems are solved. It’s a loose, open, free exchange of ideas. When people don’t feel psychologically safe, there’s a lot of awkward silence, a lot of pent-up frustration, and a lot of murmuring behind closed doors. A business will never spread its wings and thrive in a place like that.”

My name is Elainna Ciaramella, pronounced (Elena Chairamella). I am a native of Los Angeles, but spent over a decade by the beach in South Orange County, California. After moving to sunny Las Vegas, the “Entertainment Capital of the World,” my yearning to live closer to an outdoor playground brought me to Southern Utah, where I now live a few short miles from Tech Ridge, Atwood Innovation Plaza at DSU, Dixie Technical College, and some of the best trails in the Beehive State. As a researcher, journalist and hopelessly devoted storyteller, I’ve spent many full days and long nights conducting interviews with business owners, CEOs, and C-suite executives from all over the country. My curiosity is endless and I’m always seeking information that will intrigue and inspire readers.

Comments (6)

  • Patrick Flood

    Jean Hartley and Tikka Van Vuuren wrote a great book with Sage a few years ago titled Job Insecurity which mirrors your more recent work.
    The big question is where is the tipping point between too much job security and concomitant complacency and too little job security and the freeze reaction. In the TQM literature many years ago Deming wrote that the first thing for firms to do if they are serious about improving quality is to drive out fear (in that case fear that improvement would lead to job cuts). My experience with executives and EMBA students is that the lack of psychological safety is very real.

  • Elainna Ciaramella

    Thank you, Patrick. I’ll have to check out the book!

  • Lee Brinton

    May I suggest that at least part of the problem arises when the “bosses” place their own interests and careers ahead of the durable success of the company, including its employees. This is one of the five temptations described in a book by Patrick Lencioni titled, “The 5 Temptations of the CEO”. When employees think the boss is taking care of her/him self ahead of them, there will be distrust. There is a growing sense that those in leadership roles don’t seem too concerned about killing the goose that lays the golden eggs as long as they get enough eggs before it dies. Here are two brief examples of what it might otherwise look like.

    I was in high school during the early 1970’s. This was the time of oil embargoes, Nixon’s resignation, high inflation, and a deep economic downturn especially in construction. Both my father and my scout master owned small businesses related to construction. Over a two year period, my father went several months without bringing home a paycheck, but never missed a payroll. I remember a pretty slim Christmas one year. I learned about this 20 years later from the office manager who was still there when I was running the family business.

    In my scoutmaster’s company, he brought all the employees together and explained the situation. He proposed that rather than laying off 20 – 30% of the workforce, they could accomplish that same savings if everyone took a cut. As the highest compensated person in the company, he took the largest cut – largest percentage and largest dollar cut. Less compensated employees took smaller percentage and dollar cuts, but everyone contributed. Both companies survived the downturn without layoffs and were in business for the construction boom in the late 70’s. Both companies benefited from employee loyalty and were great places to work and do business.

    • Elainna Ciaramella

      Wow, your father sounds like a great man. I experienced something very similar as the daughter of a landscape contractor. I recall vividly as my father would not get paid to ensure he made payroll. It sounds like he was a wonderful mentor!

  • Connie

    I have encountered this, been every minute afraid of getting fired, suffered tremendous crippling anxiety and depression including hospitalization and been fired twice and am currently unemployed. I would love to figure out how people succeed in a culture where everything they do is considered fire worthy material….

    • Elainna Ciaramella

      Thank you, Connie. It’s nice to hear from someone who can speak from first-hand experience.

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