The recent Beecroft proposals on no-fault dismissal have been described as controversial to say the least. Notably, business secretary Vince Cable described the report as ‘bonkers’ and suggested that implementing its recommendations would leave the ‘dead hand of fear’ hanging over employees.

Feel the fear – or leave

Dr Cable’s point seems to be, rather obviously, that living with fear is something employees would not want, and creating such an environment would be morally unacceptable. While I agree with him, others point to the net creation of jobs, declaring: ‘Times are tough, take the job and the fear, or leave it’.

Moral considerations aside, there is a sound business case for avoiding an unpleasant emotional climate in the workplace. Put simply, the amount of positive and negative feelings that an individual experiences has a direct influence on the extent to which that individual will flourish or languish. This applies to business teams, too.

Negative emotion = stress and illness

The hard research evidence for these claims has been led for more than a decade by Barbara Fredrickson, professor of psychology at the University of North Carolina. Emotions lie at the heart of all human activities, including how we negotiate the day-to-day challenges of the jobs we do and the people we meet. Fear and other ‘negative’ emotions evolved to prompt us to remove ourselves from dangerous situations – which is all well and good if you can run away. But what if you are stuck in a scenario from which you can’t escape, such as a bullying boss or the constant possibility of dismissal? Sooner or later, stress, burnout and illness will rear their heads.

The plus side of positivity

Positive emotions, on the other hand, broaden perspectives – allowing individuals to identify opportunities to build resources such as relationships. In the workplace, positive emotions have been linked to greater creativity, co-operation and leadership. Such feelings are also linked to lower staff turnover and fewer accidents. Furthermore, they can have a dramatic impact on teams – studies have suggested a direct correlation between the emotional climate of a team and its performance, with the more positive teams emerging as clear winners. Without less pleasant emotions, things may fall apart, but the ratio should be at least 3:1 in favour of the positive. You can check your own personal ratio online at positivityratio.com.

Fear can focus the mind and create results in the short-term. But it’s important to resist the enduring notion that a fire-breathing management style will win the day in the long-run. Negative emotions are not forbidden, but if individuals are living with constant fear over a prolonged period of time, they will perform poorly and their health will decline – both of which bring costs to their employer. Vince Cable makes a very important point indeed.

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Written by Simon Daley, independent consultant and researcher

I am an independent researcher and consultant on wellbeing and engagement at work. I spent 20 years as a foot soldier in an enlightened PLC and still never got beyond a love-hate relationship with what I was supposed to be doing. So now I explore the big questions on the purpose and meaning of work in the post-crash 21st century – I’d love to hear your own views and stories.

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