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Encourage a culture of honesty and curiosity and watch performance improve

At work, managers are always looking for ways to get the best from their employees in order to generate performance improvements. So what drives behaviour change? Is it fear or honesty?

As a coach I observe avoidance behaviour from several of my clients. They come up with logical reasons why it's beneficial not to change or to take a risk, and some even spend a lot of time and energy actively avoiding tasks or situations that may mean facing a fear. One client told me he couldn't attend any networking events because he was too busy.  I encouraged him to be honest and recognise what was really holding him back. When he did so, he realised that he had a fear of being cornered by a bore and did not know how to politely get away. This fear of potentially making a fool of oneself can be so restrictive, and if we really want to encourage our colleagues to take some risks in order to improve, we'd better be prepared to go there ourselves.   

Making change a habit is the first step. This can be as simple as sitting in a different chair at home, or changing your daily routine in some way. I coached another executive who wanted to develop more patience with her colleagues who took longer to pick up new concepts than she did. Often she would get frustrated and it showed in her body language and tone of voice. We explored how she could do this. She decided to try something new every day, so that she was constantly stepping out of her comfort zone. Whether it was using her less dominant hand to write, or trying to speak last in a meeting rather than jumping in first, it helped her experience discomfort on a daily basis and enabled her to appreciate what others might be experiencing. As a result she became more understanding and relaxed with colleagues.

Talking about your greatest fear can also help you face it. Whether it's making a presentation to the board or being made redundant, when a fear is swirling around in your head, it can generate worry, sleeplessness and anxious behaviour.  I found talking about my fears useful when preparing for my first polar expedition. Our team of novices had no knowledge of how to survive in the Arctic, let alone what to do if we met a polar bear or fell through the ice. Part of our preparation strategy was to carry out a ‘what if' scenario planning exercise. The process of writing down our fears and discussing how we would respond to them meant that we had to show courage. This helped us realise that we shared similar concerns, and therefore were more able to discuss how to address them.  

Too often in male-dominated organisations, I observe boardroom bravado, where no one is prepared to admit weakness. As a woman, however, I have an advantage.  I can express fear, uncertainty or concern and somehow it is accepted.  I can ask the questions that others dare not voice, and as a result people are then able to get to the heart of an issue and talk about what's really going on. All that is needed is a catalyst - someone, regardless of gender, who has the courage to ask the questions that need to be asked and to be prepared for whatever could happen. It can have devastating consequences. Several corporate giants have been brought to their knees over the past few years as a result of an employee voicing a fear or challenging a dishonest business practice.

I ran a workshop for HR directors recently where each person shared one behaviour they wanted to improve and ask for ideas on how to change. What made it so effective was that there was honesty in the room. People were prepared to listen and take on board suggestions for change, because they also were able to offer ideas to others at the same time. They were all in it together. All it needed was the catalyst.

We also need to recognise that fear is in all of us. Once that is acknowledged, and that it's a natural part of life, we can look at it differently. It can even work for us in a positive way. I have seen fear driving greater preparation before a difficult performance review or a communications plan being created prior to a major organisational change in order to placate the fears of others.

I now prefer to use the word curiosity rather than fear. Somehow it seems to engender a different reaction within us - more positive and childlike behaviour. Rather than assuming when we get older that we should know all the answers, curiosity takes us to a place of unknowing. And the only way to learn is to ask the question, or take an action and see what the outcome is. So if you want to create a culture of performance improvement, begin by encouraging honesty and curiosity.

Sue Stockdale is an executive coach and the first British woman to ski to the magnetic North Pole