Fear – The Biggest Barrier to Effective Leadership Communication?

By Heather Campbell

By Heather Campbell >>

Although I’m not a close follower of Australian politics, I was intrigued to watch Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s impassioned speech about misogynist behaviour on the part of Opposition Leader Tony Abbott (http://youtu.be/nRKpa37cOPk).

As the first female Australian PM, it seems that Gillard was ready to share some home truths in this powerful speech. And from the expression on the Opposition Leader’s face, I think he was caught on the back foot.

What struck me most about this speech is the sense that Gillard is saying what she’s wanted to say for a long time – it’s finally coming out with authenticity and feeling.

That led me to reflect on how often leaders in business don’t say what they mean or what needs to be said. They hide behind half-truths and vague communications even when they know that there is a clear and direct message that needs to be shared.

My experience in working with business leaders shows that the biggest barrier to them communicating what they need to communicate is fear.

Time after time, leaders tell me about something they want to say but daren’t say. Time after time, the underlying reason for this boils down to one or more of the following:

  • Fear of someone else’s emotional outburst
  • Fear of their own emotional outburst
  • Fear that people will go to the Union
  • Fear that people will go to HR
  • Fear that they will be misquoted
  • Fear that they won’t get the reaction they expected
  • Fear that the boss won’t like what they’re saying
  • Fear they’ll make themselves look like an idiot
  • Fear that they won’t be liked

Fear, fear and more fear. And because of these fears:

  • Underperformance isn’t addressed
  • Difficult messages are left unspoken
  • Good ideas aren’t shared
  • Challenging questions go unasked
  • Feedback that should be given is not

Fear is a powerful motivator – it taps into deeply embedded physiological and psychological responses.

Physiologically, fear primes hormonal changes that were first developed to deal with attacks from woolly mammoths and still occur in our brains today (yes, really!).

Psychologically, fear draws on messages that we learnt in childhood and that may not have been relevant even then (“I want doesn’t get” and “Don’t speak until you’re spoken to” are just two examples here) – and they certainly aren’t relevant today.

If we are to build the confidence and competence to speak up as leaders – to tackle the tough stuff or the potentially embarrassing stuff or the risky stuff – then we need to examine what we fear will happen when we do. Only then can we start to ask ourselves if the fear is reasonable. And surprisingly – most of the time – you’ll find that the answer to this is ‘No’.

What fears hold you back from saying what needs to be said? Are these reasonable/rational fears? Or have you got yourself into trouble for being too vocal about something? We’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences – leave us a comment below or tweet us @CommsMasters.

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