Fear of falling

”   In the business of changing their lives”

Stephen Robertson, CEO, The Big Issue Foundation speaking about their vendors

There is a point when money runs out that it becomes easy to stop looking up. Fear, a very powerful emotion, takes hold even if it doesn’t have a reality to it. In that moment the thought of what happens next grips like a vice.

When you’re hungry the thought is of food, when you’re cold it is finding warmth. When you have no money for the rent the concrete paving looks harder than ever before.

That’s not a quote, that was my reality back in a much more difficult time. It never leaves me that it is a lot to do with chance that I have security right now, even though I learnt the way to deal with the fear is to look up towards the next step.

The lessons stay with me, and I make this a personal blog today because it taught me what a difference it made to my thoughts of what was possible, what I felt safe to do and how at that point I was prepared to accept an awful lot in the name of keeping my job.

I’m one of the lucky ones, so far, I’ve not been homeless and on the streets. But I am acutely aware of the growing numbers from all sorts of backgrounds with all sorts of reasons for ending up where they are.

I chose a quote from Stephen Robertson, CEO of The Big Issue Foundation because that organisation understands the difference it makes for a person to feel like they have some control of their life. I also chose it because we all could find ourselves homeless quite suddenly through a moment’s stroke of fate so I encourage you to buy a copy when you see a vendor.

I believe strongly that this fact has a profound impact on us as we find ourselves at the bottom of Maslow’s Hierarchy. It’s personal. It’s frightening. It’s a position that is difficult to see a way out of.

When we have that fear it is so hard to look up and believe it might be possible to ever reach higher again. Even harder if we haven’t ever been higher.

There are many layers to this.

Obviously there is the aspect of what responsibility those of us have when we are higher on the hierarchy (Note: I use that in the literal sense of the diagram, I do not for one second see myself at a different level to anyone else in real terms.) It certainly doesn’t make an impact on us to spend the price of a coffee on a magazine, that is simple economics.

There is also the aspect of what are we doing in our lives to even try to make a difference? After Robin Williams died there were tales of how he ensured every film he worked on took on homeless people to get them back on their feet. Is there an opportunity to do more in your organisation?

But what of the aspect of our own intrinsic fears? Of how they can not only work against us, perhaps enabling the worst to happen but how the behaviour of others can play on those fears.

I was not a brave person back in those darker days, I spent more time worrying about money and keeping my home than I did considering how I could build my career, enhance my employment options and hopefully create better opportunities. It took the vision of others for me to see that I had potential and even then it took years for me to start to realise what I was really capable of.

In a way that meant I handed power over to others. That made me vulnerable.

I wouldn’t make bold or challenging decisions in my job because I was afraid of putting my head above the parapet. I went through a couple of experiences of redundancy processes, one which came to be, the others just threats and consultation processes. I know I didn’t do my best work in those times, though I did the best I could given the circumstances.

Every day there are businesses going through difficulties and reorganisations and here in the UK at least we have a process designed to be fair but which can last months. The people suffer as does the organisation and for a while only the most critical work really gets done.

The fear applies just as much to the executive who just spent their savings on building an extension as it does to the checkout operator who scrapes by every single day.

And yet we still expect to see commitment and integrity from the people whose living is threatened.

Whether the threat comes from continued low pay or from a temporary situation the harsh reality is you may not get the best from an employee when they are in that boat.

And what does this have to do with sustainability? Well, everything. If your business is paying less than a Living Wage you are part of the issue. If you are expecting staff to go the extra mile but you’re on your third reorganisation in three years you’ve lost their trust and most likely their commitment, so any strategy you set is going to struggle.

In our other series on the Sustainable Development Goals we will be looking at poverty, hunger, wellbeing and so much more.

They say ‘charity begins at home’. Your desire to be a responsible business begins with how you work with your people. If you hope they will work with you to help you become a sustainable business, start by considering whether they are able to bring their best self to work. Have frank discussions about difficult situations, even if the situation is not a happy one, don’t undermine your trust. That doesn’t mean agree pay you can’t afford, but  you can be honest about how many hours you can offer, for example, and reasonable about flexibility if they need to seek other work.

If your team is in a higher salary bracket, uncertainty about the future may still be a factor. Whilst you aren’t responsible for their personal decisions building trust will mean you have an understanding of how they might feel if times are tough. With that you will be able to work together to find the best way for them to focus on their job, do their best work and perhaps build towards the next step up.

What if that support came in the form of fresh opportunities to develop skills? Maybe their natural talent for data analysis could help you to find savings through energy efficiency. Maybe that experience might one day encourage them to study and build more potential for them and for your business if you support them through it.

It happened for me, I got promoted as a result and my fear of falling began to fade. As it did I got bolder and more challenging and I began to develop the career I have today.

When times are tough it’s hard not to fear the fall to the next level down. It’s hard to look up and reach for the next rung. For your organisation to become more responsible you should be the one looking down, reaching out to lend a hand in support.

In my case it was a passion for doing something about climate change that made that shift happen, maybe consider whether you have someone in your team who isn’t looking up, simply for the fear of falling. If so, could your sustainability strategy be their opportunity to get into their own way of changing their life?


Sandra Norval is an award winning Sustainability Strategist who believes that frameworks to support people in delivering change are critical to the success of any strategy. Find out more on our main website and join our mailing list to keep up with all of the Maslow’s Hierarchy series and more.

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