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Fearless Employees are Better Employees

4/11/2013
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Be fearless.  Be brave.  Be remarkable.  Read any cool tech magazine or visit a future-minded website and this is what you’ll hear.  I work in an office that receives a lot of publications and e-mails talking about things like company culture, passion, leadership, and inspiration.  It seems everyday a new newsletter with articles like “Let Your Employees Be Themselves” or “Encourage Your Team to Take Risks.”  I go to seminars where inspirational speakers tell us fantastic stories about employees thinking outside of the box, taking chances, and making magic happen.  Being fearless has become a part of the advertised corporate culture.  And yet, when it gets down to it…how “fearless” are you really comfortable being at work? And, if you are an employer…how fearless are your employees?

When I was in college I did a report on a company well known for its fearless corporate culture.  Employees were encouraged and empowered to make important decisions so long as those decisions fell in line with the company’s core values.  There are countless stories of the employees at this firm going above and beyond to provide top-notch customer service.  My favorite happened a few years ago.  A customer had ordered a product and later decided to return it.  Days past and when she didn’t return the product, she received an e-mail from the company reminding her to make the return.  The customer’s mother had recently passed away and she just hadn’t been able to get to the task. She explained this to the customer service agent who said that they would arrange a scheduled pickup so that the customer wouldn’t have to make the trip.  A few days later the customer arrived home to find a floral arrangement with a card offering condolences from the company.

This story went viral.  It was an incredible act of human kindness – one that we aren’t always used to when dealing with customer service representatives.  Part of what makes this story so striking is the level of discretion enjoyed by that employee.  She didn’t have to call a manager.  She didn’t have to submit a request.  Her company trusted her judgment and gave her the latitude she needed to provide the best service she knew how.  Her company culture empowered her.  They let her be herself.  They encouraged her to take chances.

Most of us don’t enjoy the type of freedom described above.  In fact, most of us are very afraid.  A 2012 survey of working adults found that 28% report “making a mistake on the job” as their biggest workplace fear.  18% stated that they are afraid of dealing with difficult customers or clients.  15% were afraid of conflicts with their manager.  There were other fears listed as well, but only 3% of employees identify themselves as fearless.  Fear creates stress and can devastate an employee’s creativity and productivity.  It’s common sense really.  When you are stressed or panicked, you are not going to be especially innovative.  You keep your head down.  You don’t volunteer ideas.  You do what you have to do to get your job done and go unnoticed. 

When employers create cultures of fear, they cheat themselves out of exactly the edge they need to stay competitive.  They cheat themselves out of creativity, enthusiasm and energy.  They cheat themselves out of amazing employees like the customer service representative mentioned above – employees who create lifelong customers, solve big problems and man the front lines of your firm.  Among the most important decisions an employer can make is what type of company culture they will create. Will employees keep their heads down out of fear?  Or will they step up and do something outstanding?

 Nicole Palmisano

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