Episode 81: Are You Afraid to Work?

Chester: Today, on Anxiety at Work, we talk about freedom. Not political freedom, but the kind of freedom that makes work more rewarding and reduces fear. I’m Chester Elton, and with me is my co-author and dear friend Adrian Gostick.


Adrian: Thanks, Ches. So how do you create a work culture that people will love and thrive in? Where they can do their best work devoid of fear. That’s what our guest today is going to talk about.


Chester: And our guest today is Traci Fenton, founder, and CEO of World Blue, a Global Leadership company built to help CEOs and top leaders lead more effectively. She is the author of “Freedom at Work: The Leadership Strategy for Transforming your Life, Your Organization and our World.” Traci and her team have helped hundreds of companies and leadership from fear-based leadership into freedom-centered leadership at organizations such as WD-40, Pandora, Hulu, Zappos, GE Aviation, and more. And she’s done it in more than 100 company countries worldwide. Tracy, we’re delighted to have you on the podcast.


Traci: It’s wonderful to be with you. Thank you for having me.


Adrian: Well, we’re thrilled to have you. This is such an important topic—freedom versus fear. So startup is a high level, you know, let’s talk about how to handle anxiety in the workplace. You know, your book, of course, is about how to handle fear and replace it with freedom, and you have this wonderful five-step practice. So walk us through how we handle fear better at work.


Traci: Well, I know you all know the impact of fear and anxiety in the workplace with your wonderful work, and so we’re in this together. You know, what we have found at World Blue, the brain research, right, tells us that the average person thinks around 60 000 thoughts a day. Ninety-five of those thoughts are the same thoughts we had the day before, and 80 of those thoughts are negative and fear-based. And we’re living in a time with so much fear and anxiety and uncertainty and stress; how do we handle this? How can we handle this? And one of the things that I teach in the book is a five-step process that we call the power question practice. And we call it the power question practice because when we are in fear and anxiety and stress, we’re not in our power, right? We’ve given our power away to those emotions. So how do we get back into our power? And what this practice that we’ve done with leaders all over the world, uh, has five steps to it. I’m gonna share those five questions right now with you. So, listeners, I invite you to think about a challenge that you’re dealing with. The first question is, what are you afraid of? So what exactly is the fear that you’re facing? You know, sometimes we think on a very surface level, and we have to go deeper and go well, at the core of this, I’m actually afraid that I’m not enough. Or I’m afraid of what others will think of me or other people’s opinions. Or afraid that I can’t rise to the occasion. So that first question is, what am I afraid of? The second question is, why am I afraid? Am I projecting something into the future that I’m worried is going to happen? You know. Am I thinking about something from the past and bringing that into the present? Did I see something happen with someone else, and I’m thinking it’s going to be happening to me? So why am I afraid? Now, once you’ve uncovered those two things, we get into the real crux of the questions-which is, so what would you do if you weren’t afraid? How would you solve that problem? What actions would you take? What conversations would you have, uh, if you weren’t scared? Obviously, I’m not talking about sort of a reckless fearlessness here, but a responsible bravery.

A boldness that gets us unstuck and moving forward. The fourth question is so, how would I feel without that fear? How would I feel without that anxiety and stress, right? Lighter, you know, more transparent in my thinking. I often find in my own life when that when that fog of fear lifts away; I feel energized. I want to take action, and then the last question is, why is it okay to let the fear go? why is it okay to let the fear go? And this is really important because, for some people, it’s a very logical thing where they say, you know, I think if I do this, that, and the other, we’re going to solve this problem. I’m a super spiritual person. I believe the universe is good, has my back. It’s going to work out. So why is it okay to let that fear, anxiety, and stress go? Those five questions can shift the direction of an individual’s mindset and leadership of an entire team within minutes.


Chester: I really appreciate those questions. You know, it’s interesting you talk about fear-based leadership. My first reaction when I read that was leaders that lead with fear instead of leaders that are fearful, which is more about what you’re talking about. And it is interesting because I think younger workers, in particular, struggle with the concept of freedom, right? Many we’ve spoken to-talking to feel that their workplace doesn’t provide a level of freedom that will engage them and their team while they’re working. So when people hear about a workplace where they can express a desire for more freedom, or they want more freedom, you know, what do they really mean by that?


Traci: I think what they mean is that I want you to see me as a human being. I want you to see me as a person who has value, who has worth, who deserves to have a voice, and I want you to treat me with a sense of dignity. And so freedom should not mean a free-for-all, right? That’s laissez-faire management. Freedom is the outcome, and I talk about this in the book of a democratic style of management. If you think about the leadership continuum, right, on one end, you’ve got that command and control authoritarian, fear-based leadership style. Whatever word you want to put on it. Anything that’s very controlling. The other end of the spectrum is that laissez-faire, free-for-all management strategy that needs to be revised. I feel I’m biased on our 25 years of doing work on this, is that democratic leadership style-meaning a style that gives power to the people. But in order to uh have that freedom-freedom is the outcome, people have to be willing to take personal accountability. So it’s not a free-for-all. It’s not; oh, you get whatever you want. It’s not that at all, but it’s understanding how we employ those democratic principles-structure them into our organizations to create the conditions that help people really engage. Really feel seen and heard and move things forward.


Chester: Okay, let me-a different point of view here because people that are listening to the podcast, I’m sure they’re going to be those that say, okay, I get the democracy, and we all vote. Isn’t there a certain point, though, when the leader has to step in and say hey, I heard everybody. Here’s the decision; here’s where we’re going to go. It’s the old rock and roll anthem, right? Freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose, right? So laissez-faire doesn’t work. I get the command and control, and you were trying to morph in the middle here. Once everybody’s voted, don’t you need to make a decision and move forward? How do you answer that?


Traci: I’m glad you asked that question, Chester, because that’s a common misperception that democracy means voting. So they vote in North Korea. Does that make it democratic?


Chester: No, no good point. Yeah, voting, and this is a common misperception, right?


Traci: Voting is only a way of making a decision you can use. Voting, you can use consensus, or you can use consent-based decision-making. Most people think they know what democracy is, and I would say they don’t. So I spent over a decade researching what it is that actually creates a democratic system, and I talk about there are ten principles. I talk about this in my book, and it’s been well-researched by other third-party people. Democracy is actually a system, a leadership system, that employs principles like transparency, accountability, decentralized power, choice, and the balance of the individual and the collective. Those are built into the system, so traditionally organizational systems are built in that pyramid structure, hierarchical command, and control. So if that’s how you organize your systems and processes, that’s the opposite of a democratic system. So, no, when you have a democratically governed company, decisions are happening all the time, and they’re happening on out to the people on the edges where they should be happening. It’s easy to make decisions.


Adrian: Okay, so, one of the pushes here is managers, listening to this, saying, yeah, but that’s not what’s happening in my company. You know, I actually have to break the rules to manage in this way because, you know, we are very hierarchical. We’re very, you know, structured. Etc. So, you have managers who must break the rules to manage this way. And, you know, how do they go about that? Or should they?


Traci: Yeah, they should because, look, we have found-we had third-party research done on the Freedom At Work model that we teach-and we found that companies that operate in a much more decentralized collaborative, democratic way have, on average, 700% greater revenue growth over a three-year period compared to the S&P 500. So, they need to be breaking the rules because that command and control top-down hierarchical way of leading is probably crushing engagement, crushing people’s souls, not allowing great ideas and innovation to come forward. Not allowing the company to be agile and to adjust to the incredible market challenges that are happening right now globally. So, they do need to break those rules, and I would encourage them to. My book shows you how, but you can start righting your team. right. You can start righting your team with how can you, to Chester’s great point that he brought out earlier, lead yourself more fearlessly, and then how do you help eliminate the fear that’s in the system? You know, I literally just got off a mastermind with a group of CEOs, and one of them was saying, how can I help lower the level of fear and uncertainty right now within my team? Because of all the market their construction company in Romania, you know, how can I lower this in order for people to be at their best? And we talked through, you know, how you have transparency of information. How you let people know what’s going on? You treat people like adults. You stop treating them like children, and that’s when you get that engagement that we all need to really build and grow great companies. So yes, please go break the rules.


Chester: You know, it’s a perfect segue into my question about autonomy, you know, how can leaders, his frontline employees, you know, they need that autonomy to make decisions and satisfy customers and solve problems. How can leaders help their people and enable their people to be more autonomous in the front within this system of a more democratic company?


Traci: Yeah, well, to me, autonomy is another word for freedom, so when you have, in order to have the freedom, remember freedom’s the outcome. So we found 75% of culture, of your culture again, is actually determined by your systems and processes that you have in place. So if people want more autonomy and more freedom, you have to create decentralized systems and processes that allow that to occur. In my book, I give over a hundred best practices curated from World Blue certified freedom center companies worldwide that shows exactly how you can create. It’s not rocket science. It’s actually not that hard. How do you create these decentralized systems and processes that give power to your people on the front lines so that they are empowered to make great decisions to take action to satisfy the customer and move things forward. And to feel like, again, they’re treated like an adult rather than a minion in a command and control hierarchy.


Adrian: So how can people learn more about your work Tracy? Where would you point them?


Traci: Pick up the book. Read, you know, a low-cost, easy way to see the philosophy. You know, I worked 25 years on this book. It is a tremendous amount of research and stories and inspiration, and then, of course, they can go to our website, worldblueblu.com. We’re called World Blue because blue is universally recognized as the color of freedom. You can learn more about us there, and you can certainly connect with me on LinkedIn directly as well. Traci with an i. Tracy Fenton or Traci Fenton LinkedIn.


Adrian: Yeah, Chester told me orange was the color of freedom. Of course, he tells me orange is the color of everything.


Traci: I love your shirt and your glasses. It’s very good. I love it. So I’m the orange part of our relationship. I’m the blue. See, I got blue freedom. The orange and blue very Dutch. Yeah, okay, so I wanna-okay, so, if I’m listening to this and I go, okay, look, Traci’s very smart, but you know I suffer from anxiety. Those five questions. Uh, okay, you’ve asked me those, but you know, but I want to hang on to of my fear because who are you to tell me that I should let it go? Uh, so what do you do when people are gonna just, you know, hang on to their fear because whether it’s real or not, it’s existential, or you know it’s real. How do you work somebody through even though you’re trying when people are hanging on? What do you do?


Traci: Oh, I love that question, Adrian, because you’re so right. For a lot of people, their fears are what create their sense of identity, right? And so to say to someone, I’d like you to let go of your fear, feels like they’re letting go of who they are, and so that can be a slow process. And what we have to do instead is really reframe our sense of identity and who we are, you know, in a much more positive way. So I think we have to be patient with people. We have to be compassionate. If they’re at least open to having the conversation, that’s great. If they’re not, we certainly don’t pry them open. We let them be with their fears until it just becomes so painful they can’t take it anymore, and they’re ready to kind of shed that mantle.


Chester: Yeah, as if my dad used to say, don’t tell me not to worry. Ninety-nine of the things I worry about never happen, you know?


Traci: Exactly


Chester: and that’s your identity, right? You’re the worrier. You’re a worrier. Yeah, hey, so let’s give some advice to HR professionals that are listening. I mean, it’s their job to do employee engagement make sure they’ve got a great place to work. So what is the role of HR in companies to create this kind of culture that you’re talking about?


Traci: The role of HR is to help lower the level of fear in the company. Whether that’s through transparency or whether it’s very directly addressing the fear. You got to understand. I say this to leaders all the time. Every single problem at the core of it is fear every single problem so instead of someone coming in, they’re freaking out, or they’re angry. They’re telling you their problems. Just take that step back and help drill down and help them get clear on what exactly is the fear, and I will tell you it will shift everything in just a moment when people realize this is what I’m afraid of. Okay, let’s pull that out, let’s shine the light on that, and let’s address that challenge. So what HR leaders have to do is really understand it all comes back to these human dynamics and handle that personal fear. Fear I’m not good enough. Fear I need more resources. Fear of what other people think of me. Fear of losing my job. You know, all those fears. Handle the fear, and you’ve handle the problem.


Adrian: Yeah, and there’s, you know, the organizations we work with, you know, many of them are bigger, they’re very structured. Uh, we’ve kind of touched on this, but I mean Chester and I, we used to run a team in a mid-sized company, and we would break all the rules all the time, and most of the time, they didn’t know what we were doing. We would take care of our people. Would give them extra time off when we weren’t supposed to. We’d sneak in a little extra money for them here and there when nobody knew what we were doing. And so we won’t name the company because I wonder if we broke any laws or not. I don’t think we did, Chester. But so it kind of comes back to that. It’s in a way managers are battling with HR, who’s enforcing the rules, or leadership that’s enforcing the rules. So you have this tug of war that’s sometimes going on in organizations, So how do we do this, get around the rules, and maybe even identify if it’s happening in organizations? And where do we start? What’s the first step to doing this right?


Traci: Well, absolutely. I mean, we have an assessment at World Blue called the Freedom at Work scorecard where we actually measure, you know, where a company is on that continuum. Because you got to see where your systems and processes already more freedom centered and where are they fear-based, and then we have to be very laser-like in shifting those systems and processes. You know you could, I’m sure. You all have seen it in your career, right? You can take the best and brightest people, and you put them in a toxic and dehumanizing environment they’re not-their light isn’t going to be able to shine very brightly, right? So we do have to change those systems and processes and restructure and reorganize the way companies work. And I know some listeners might be freaking out. Going that sounds really hard and really scary. It’s actually not that difficult when you know what you’re doing. If you don’t know what you’re doing, it becomes very messy and chaotic, but if you know what you’re doing, it’s manageable. It can be quite fun and liberating. So we’ve worked with companies from small all the way up to Fortune 500s with 120000 employees or more, and the change and the impact to the bottom line and engagement is remarkable. So, it’s about understanding there is a different way. There is another way: a process and a framework for how to do it. It doesn’t have to be, you know, chaotic and scary.


Chester: Yeah, a road map, right? And that’s what your book provides, right? Yeah, here’s the road map. Make it easy. Thanks, Traci. Hey, you know our podcast is obviously called Anxiety at Work, and a lot of anxiety is driven by fear, so we’re always interested in the people we have on the show. What are some of your personal practices that keep your anxiety levels low? Do you have some rituals or routines that you rely on?


Traci: Oh yeah, I pray. That’s right, right. I’m a very spiritual person. I pray all day. All day. It is the only thing that a little bit of dark chocolate with sea salt, right?


Chester: Sprinkle a little caramel in there, and you’ve got me. Traci,


Traci: no, but I mean. I’m, to be honest, I’m just a super spiritual person, and I spend my day and my thought, uh, for me, prayers listening to a loving God, so I listen and take action.


Chester: Yeah, it’s fascinating. So often, that’s not a category where people feel safe going. Um, in the world that we live in, and yet you know Adrian and I both are of that, you know, belief that when you know that you’re part of something bigger than yourself when you know that you’re not all alone, that you’ve got somebody and something you can rely on, a loving God. Then you’ve got to wait like you say, a road map through prayer where you can communicate and call down that help. It really does make a huge difference, doesn’t it?


Traci: A huge difference. Otherwise, I would jump off a cliff if I didn’t have that. So it is, and, you know, people often say the opposite of fear is love. The opposite of fear is understanding, and you said it, Chester. When you know when you have a higher power, you can rely upon but also have a road map, and understand how things can work that really helps lower that level of anxiety and fear.


Adrian: That’s wonderful. I thought Chester was a druid, so yeah, yeah, okay, good. Uh, this has been such an excellent discussion. Traci, today so what one or two things would you want our listeners to take away after this if you could summarize?


Traci: Three things, number one, lead with freedom over fear, lead with freedom, or do it consciously and intentionally. Number two, give power to your people. Stop taking their control away. Give them power. Give them a voice. Let them have a say. Let them have meaningful choices. And number three, create democratic systems and processes rather than authoritative systems and processes and watch the innovation and creativity and soulfulness and goodness that can be unlocked. Especially during these challenging times.


Chester: Excellent. Well, our guest today has been Traci Fenton. She is the author of “Freedom at Work: The Leadership Strategy for Transforming your Life, Your Organization, and our World,” available at fine bookstores everywhere and, I’m sure, online at Amazon. Traci, you’ve been a delight. Thank you so much for sharing your wisdom. Twenty-five years worth of research that you’ve put into this book. Thank you so much for making a difference and brightening the world everywhere you go. Thank you.


Traci: Thanks for having me.


Author recap:


Adrian: Well, Ches, another great conversation here, and this is something I’m hearing a lot about, especially from younger people. As you asked about this idea of freedom at work, we hear about quiet quitting. We hear about people being disengaged and giving just the most, uh, you, know, the least amount, and a lot of it comes to this. Why should I give my all if I don’t feel freedom at work, huh?


Chester: Yeah, and I’ll tell you, her take on fear me was fascinating. She actually said every problem is based in fear, and the solution to every problem is, you know, alleviating that fear. Her five questions were so interesting to me, and we probably don’t ask ourselves these questions enough, you know? What am I afraid of, you know? And then, she gave some great examples on that question alone. I’m not enough. I won’t live up to expectations, you know, people will be–I’ll disappoint someone, and then, you know, what would it be like if I could get rid of that fear? I found the conversation really fascinating.


Adrian: Yeah, them, you know, the five questions are really good. You know, what am I afraid of? Why am I afraid? Uh, what if I weren’t afraid? How would I feel without that anxiety and fear, and why is it okay to let it go? Those are great, and I thought when I asked the question about, well yeah, but what if they go yeah, but I’m still not going to give up my fear, and I thought I like being afraid? Yeah, exactly. She was really insightful. She said look, and fear is letting go of our identity. We have to refrain, but we have to be patient and positive because, you know, maybe somebody says, look, I am, you know, I’m afraid of those darn left wings or right wings or whatever in politics, let’s just pick on. And I’m afraid of those people, um, you’re not going to just change somebody overnight when they’ve got that fear. So how do you work through that? It’s patience. It’s positivity. And it’s asking these questions sometimes multiple times.


Chester: And treating people like adults, you know. She said don’t treat your employees as if they’re children, or she invoked minions, which always brings me to those little yellow guys that I think are hilarious. Um, the idea that look, we’re going to treat you as an adult. Your opinion matters. I’m going to listen to you. I’m going to coach you up. I’m going to be positive. I mean, I’m going to do all I can to alleviate that fear, and then the numbers that she threw out, you know, 700 times more profitable than the Fortune 100, or whatever the numbers were, you know? We always say, look, it’s a nice thing to do everything she talked about. There was nothing unkind there, and of course, the question is, does it impact my bottom line? And she’s got the numbers there that say absolutely. It’ll make you much more profitable. And, particularly for people coming into the workplace out of university or college and whatnot, it’s a very appealing place to work, be heard, be innovative, and so on, right?


Adrian: And one of the things I’m hearing right now, and it’s almost everybody in every company I’ve talked with, every leader, everybody’s burned out, everybody is at the end of their rope, and there’s a long drop below it seems. And so, how do you deal with this? And that’s a question we get a lot when we go in, and this is getting to some of the answers is people are afraid. We’ve got to start having those conversations because a lot of times, people say, my managers, they don’t want to have those conversations because they don’t have answers. Well, none of us do, but we want to feel like we’re coming out of the fog together. And how you deal with fear is through communication and doing some of these things that Traci talked about-is, giving people a little bit more freedom, a little bit more choice, but making them feel like we’re in this together.


Chester: Yeah, and then lastly, I appreciate how she said, look, handle the fear; you’ll handle the problem. Handle the fear; you’ll handle the problem. Because at the core of most issues and concerns, particularly on the HR side, right? And the human capital side, there’s fear of something that’s holding people back, and then lastly, I just really appreciated her sharing her spiritual life with us. That’s such a big part of her identity, and it’s what keeps her sane, right? And keeps her on track and her anxiety down that she prays every day.


Adrian: And it takes some courage to talk about things like that in a way that’s not pushy or anything, and she certainly wasn’t. And that’s how we present things because a lot of times. Yeah, I’m hearing another fear-based. I’m hearing people kind of pushing their ideas right now, and she wasn’t that way at all. She was very positive. This is who I am, but didn’t insist that anybody else be that way or anybody’s a knucklehead if they weren’t. No, so that’s about freedom. That’s about being who we can be no matter who we are. And speaking of fear, we’re always afraid that one day our producer Brent Klein may go off to Hollywood and be a massive star which of course he will, so that is one thing we’re fearful of, and you can’t get me to be unafraid of that, but we want to thank him. We want to thank our amazing booker, Christy Lawrence, who helps us find great guests, and all of you who listened in today. And if you like the podcast, please share it. We’d love for you to join our online community. We thrive together.ai


Is it the culture works dot com? If you like the podcast, please share it, and we’d also love you to join our online community the, cultureworks.ai, where we’re creating a safe place to talk about anxiety. Man, I think it’s dot AI, isn’t it? AI, you’re right. I’m sorry, and I put it in there. I’m still in there, yeah, yeah, a long time, so it’s my bad. Okay, I literally was reading what you wrote; you were, so here we go.


If you like the podcast, please share it. We’d love you to join our online community, thecultureworks.ai, where we’re creating a safe place to talk about anxiety and mental health and share your fears and successes. We love speaking to audiences around the world, either virtually or in person, on the topics of wellness, resilience, anxiety, work culture, and leading with gratitude. So give us a call. We’d love to talk to you about your event.

Adrian: Well, thanks, everybody, for joining us today, and until next time, we wish you the best of mental health.