• 'Affective filter', where students are too inhibited to learn properly, affects businesses too.

• Far-reaching impacts of the pandemic have introduced fear into professional and personal lives around the world.

• Fostering a growth mindset means not being afraid to take risks and fail.

Once upon a time, long before I was a corporate learning leader, I had a very different career. I was a teacher.

Specifically, I was a high-school Spanish teacher. As a teacher, I noticed that whenever my young students were afraid, embarrassed or anxious, they would shut down. Or quite literally, they would shut up. Overcome with fear, they would hold back from raising their hands in class and when called on, they’d stumble over sentences in a panic.

In the world of language educators, this is a familiar phenomenon, named the “affective filter” by Stephen Krashen, who has published more than 300 papers as a linguistic researcher. If a student’s affective filter is triggered because they're embarrassed or feel judged, their capacity to learn a language plummets. Conversely, if their filter is down and they feel at ease, their language abilities skyrocket.

Over time, I took great intention to reduce my students’ insecurities by helping them gain small but achievable goals. I’d tell them stories of my own struggles when I was learning a new language. When they weren’t afraid and instead were excited to learn, we were golden. But if my students were petrified? Forget about it. Class over.

Fast-forward to the present moment in the strange and often terrifying world of COVID-19. Almost seven months into this unprecedented crisis, we are trying to navigate our way in an environment that frequently feels unfamiliar and uncomfortable. Not to mention the complete uncertainty for parents grappling with back-to-school decisions. In fact, recent research from my company Udemy found that 70% of parents are struggling balancing their work and home life since COVID-19 hit.

Times of upheaval like the pandemic can have a corrosive effect on workplaces
Times of upheaval like the pandemic can have a corrosive effect on workplaces
Image: Udemy

It’s hardly surprising that fear has infiltrated every aspect of our lives, including our careers and sense of job security.

Pulling from my time as an educator, it is precisely during challenging moments like this that I ask business leaders to set their fear aside. Instead, this is when we must be open to learning new skills. This is when we find alternate ways of doing things. If we are filled with trepidation, we can’t learn.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but a culture filled with fear spells doom for a business. I know many think of Franklin D. Roosevelt when they think about quotes on fear, but I draw my inspiration from Frank Herbert in his sci-fi classic, Dune: “Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little death that brings total obliteration.” OK, not your typical lighthearted self-help quote. But there is inspiration in Herber’s doom-and-gloom insight, one that asks us to set aside fear in favour of those qualities that define courage – curiosity, openness, agility.

To better understand the role of fear in business, Google set out to discover the key ingredients behind successful teams. The study, Project Aristotle, took place over multiple years and involved thousands of people. The number one trait they discovered across high-performing teams was psychological safety. The report notes: “In a team with high psychological safety, teammates feel safe to take risks around their team members. They feel confident that no one on the team will embarrass or punish anyone else for admitting a mistake, asking a question, or offering a new idea.”

I also point to the expansive wisdom of Stanford researcher and author Carol Dweck, whose work centres around growth mindset. In a growth mindset, says Dweck, we “engage with challenges rather than freeze out of fear”. A study done by Dweck found that middle school students who had characteristics of a growth mindset earned higher math grades than those with a fixed mindset.

Just like my students who had little chance of success because they were afraid of failing (locked into a fixed mindset), the path to true and lasting success is in being open to learning how to do better, whether or not you get it right the first or tenth time.

In a corporate culture where the message is that everyone needs to be perfect, it’s this fixed “perfection or nothing” mindset that can ultimately do in an organization. A Towers Watson study even found that 51% of employees who experienced high stress or fear at work were highly disengaged.

Inspired by Dweck’s model and Google’s findings, I ask business leaders to move through their fear (because we all experience fear). Yes, even now, be willing to take risks and fail publicly. Share your failures and your learnings. Encourage a growth mindset in every employee. Like a good student excited to improve, be transparent about what you don’t know and be willing to ask questions.

When the panic surrounding the pandemic and economic upheaval sets in and you start hyperventilating, here’s one lasting word of advice from Dweck. It is, quite literally, one word, but a powerful, game-changing one: “Yet.”

“Yet” is forgiving. “Yet” allows for weeks and months of learning while you are discovering how to adapt and grow in a new environment. “Yet” is an empathetic nod that while you’ve never operated during a pandemic (nor have millions of others), you’re up for the challenge. No matter the language, “Yet” puts any lifelong learner at ease.

So, class, repeat after me: “I don’t know how to do this … yet.”