by Esther Lee

Fear Not: Emotional Fear in the Workplace

I love working in human resources and have spent nine years in this field (coming up on seven years with Lullabot). My most enjoyable workdays are the ones in which I get to help an actual person with a real-life problem. I like to be in the know, not because I’m a big control freak (I may be a little one), but because I like to be in a position to help others.

Besides working at Lullabot, I also go to college. This semester, I elected to take a business leadership course. It might be applicable to my job, I thought, as I clicked “enroll”. WHOA. “Might” could not have been more wrong. Every time I read another chapter in my textbook, I find myself nodding along thinking about the way Lullabot operates. It’s a company that certainly harbors an environment for participative leadership.

 I thank my lucky stars that I am taking this course at THIS point of my life, as an employee of Lullabot, and not as the 18-year-old-this-is-what-my-parents-said-to-do-after-high-school self. The words in the textbook have far more meaning than they otherwise would have. I am devouring this course like I’m starving and business leadership is the first food I can get my hands on.

One of my great honors at Lullabot is being part of the hiring team. I’m one team member who gets to correspond with potential candidates and am often the first voice they’ll hear on an initial screening phone call. It’s my pleasure to get to know people and ask a few simple questions. Sometimes, I’ll get asked a question or two, and more than once I’ve been asked, “What’s your favorite thing about working at Lullabot?” Undoubtedly, I’ll respond, “They treat us like adults.” Such a simple concept, really. Treat an adult…like an adult. Nevertheless, at previous companies where I’ve worked, stepping back and letting people do their work independently proves to be a hard thing for management to do.

Empowering people is the single most important element in managing our organization.  - Fred Smith, Chairman of FedEx

I stopped reading in my textbook (The Art of Leadership 5th Edition by George Manning and Kent Curtis) when I got to Chapter 9: Empowerment in the Workplace and the Quality Imperative because it spoke to me and I had to write what I was feeling out. In the section titled Communication Problems and Solutions I came across a paragraph on fear:

Employees may find it hard to be truthful with leaders because of fear of punishment. If they have made a mistake, it may be difficult to communicate this information for fear of the leader’s reaction. Leaders can best circumvent this by showing appreciation for employees’ honesty and candor, even when they have made mistakes.

In 2010, Lullabot approached me with a project. I had helped them with a few events previously, and now they had a task that they could use some outside help on. It wasn’t an event this time, it was a mistake. Someone had made an eCommerce mistake, and they needed some manpower to fix it. This mistake was a little costly, and perhaps embarrassing, but the thing that stood out to me was— wait for it— no one was in trouble. No one was mad. No one was scared. No one lost their job. And it wasn’t a secret. Team members knew, and everyone was fine with it. This goes even further than the “treat people like adults”. It’s treating people like humans. Everyone makes mistakes and Lullabot is ok with that. Our “Be Human” core value is my favorite. People are human for better or for worse.

This situation was one of the main reasons Lullabot earned my trust, thus gaining my loyalty. After helping fix the mistake, I was asked to stay on in an HR capacity with Lullabot. I often wonder if I owe my eventual hire to that mistake.

Safety, not courage, is (arguably) the opposite of fear. The opposing feeling to being scared is feeling secure. In my opinion, treating people like adults abolishes fear. But more than that, when we treat people like humans—with understanding, empathy and respect—we instill a feeling of safety. So the next time someone asks me my favorite thing about working at Lullabot, I’ll amend my answer. My favorite thing about Lullabot is the feeling of safety. Safe to be who I am (a work in progress), responsible for my actions through good and bad, and trusted to make decisions everyday.

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