Frozen by fear?

Frozen by fear?

Blog by Dr Lynne Derman

Thembi is shouting “once again your financial reports are not accurate!” He is frustrated. Bongi just doesn’t seem able to do this, yet he should be able to, looking at his working career and qualifications. Where does the problem lie? Is it Thembi or is it Bongi? The problem lies with this thinking. It is neither Thembi nor Bongi, it is their relationship.

Thembi is understandably frustrated. He just wants Bongi to give accurate figures. He can’t help shouting when Bongi fails repeatedly. Bongi on the other hand becomes anxious 3 days before the meeting, anticipating that Thembi will shout if the numbers don’t add up. He has spent hours re-working them, checking them, he thinks that he can answer all Thembi’s questions going into the meeting. He starts to feel ill as he sits down at the table. And then suddenly: his worst nightmare happens – there is an error! How did this happen? He can’t think, he can’t respond, he just hears Thembi’s voice rising. He sinks into a morass without the capability to respond.

Let’s look behind the scenes to see what is happening. Thembi believes that Bongi should be able to produce accurate numbers but the fact is that he doesn’t. Thembi has come to believe that Bongi is incompetent and is basically angry with himself for even employing Bongi. This anger starts mounting even as he prepares for the meeting. By the time he identifies what appears to be a mistake, he is already shouting. The fact that Bongi doesn’t respond only confirms his incompetence.

Both Thembi and Bongi are suffering from classical emotional high-jacking. When our emotions kick-in we are unable to think clearly. We go into fight or flight mode. Blood rushes to the limbs, the heart pumps faster, adrenaline shoots through the system, making us feel ill on the stomach. Bongi is hyper vigilant now: surely he will produce his best work? The truth is actually the opposite. In this physiological state, Bongi does not get blood to the brain. He is incapable of thinking clearly. It isn’t his fault. It is a fact. For as long as he is stressed and fearful, he will not be able to produce accurate figures, nor will he be able to point out to Jack that actually that number is correct and provide a valid reason.

How do we resolve this? There is only one way. Bongi needs an environment in which he is not afraid, where he can work without stress, where he can ask for help if needed, where he is allowed to make mistakes, where he can learn. Who is responsible for that? Both Thembi and Bongi. Bongi needs to be able to explain to Thembi what he needs. Thembi needs to know what Bongi needs and provide that environment. This is leadership. This is taking personal responsibility for your work, for the outcomes you achieve. Does this mean that Thembi must continue to accept unsatisfactory work from Bongi? No. If Bongi has been given what he needs, and still does not produce accurate figures, then Thembi can ask the question “Is Bongi competent enough to fill this role?”.

When we can see work outcomes as the product of the relationship, then we are empowered to know what we can/should do to support our staff.

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