Fear factor: Overcoming fear of ethical leading in a small group

He who cannot be a good follower cannot be a good leader.” ― Aristotle [850x400] : r/QuotesPorn

The phenomenon known as the “Stage Fright Paradox” highlights an interesting psychological quirk: people often feel more nervous in front of a small audience than a large one. Mike Brown, writing for Lifehack, humorously explains this paradox by suggesting that with a larger audience, each member absorbs a smaller portion of your nervousness. So, imagine if your company, business, or workplace were a place where “everybody knows your name,” and the stakes of small group interactions were even higher.

However, building such familiarity and trust in small group settings can be challenging, especially when corporate pressure and unethical demands seep into leadership. The Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence conducted a comprehensive survey involving over 14,500 employees across the nation, revealing that nearly a quarter of respondents felt pressured by their superiors to engage in activities they knew were ethically wrong. For example, some participants shared instances where, in the absence of corporate oversight, their bosses encouraged them to manipulate records to create a false image of their store’s performance. This kind of leadership, driven by corporate demands, can erode trust within small groups and undermine overall efficiency.

For ethical leadership to flourish, trust and rapport are indispensable. Research such as the study on “Intimidation in Small Learning Groups” by Marina Micari and Denise Drane reveals valuable insights. This study explored social comparison and self-efficacy within small learning groups and found that in some cases, small group work can exacerbate academic anxieties, particularly those related to individuals’ perceived abilities in comparison to their peers. Interestingly, these anxieties don’t always correlate with prior academic preparation, as even students with lower academic backgrounds (measured by SAT math scores or GPAs) might not feel more intimidated than their peers. These findings can be relevant to group leaders or managers, suggesting that they may also experience feelings of inadequacy when leading ethically in small group settings.

Overcoming these fears, particularly in the context of ethical leadership, involves a direct approach. One therapeutic method, recommended by the American Psychological Association, is exposure therapy. In this technique, individuals safely confront their fears to reduce anxiety and avoidance. To ease the process, consider reframing fear as excitement when dealing with these situations, and develop strategies for maintaining ethical standards and promoting positive practices within your small group settings. Here are holistic leadership suggestions:

  1. Focus on Breathing: Dr. Fritz Perls, the founder of Gestalt therapy, once said, “Fear is excitement without the breath.” This concept underlines the importance of regulating your breath to calm anxiety and transform it into excitement. You can employ the 4-7-8 breathing technique as a helpful practice before or after meetings, either individual or group sessions, to reduce stress. This technique involves inhaling for 4 seconds, holding for 7 seconds, and exhaling as silently as possible for 8 seconds. Repeat this process as needed, and it can also be beneficial for stress reduction within a small group atmosphere.
  2. Be a Wellness Leader: Corporate wellness plans offer a host of advantages that positively affect both employees and leaders. These benefits include enhancing employee health behaviors, mitigating health risks, reducing healthcare expenses, increasing productivity, and lowering absenteeism. A corporate wellness plan can also contribute to improving employee recruitment and retention, while fostering high morale within your team. This, in turn, builds trust and appreciation for you as a leader within the group. A report from the 2022-2023 Aflac Workforce study highlights that a significant 70% of employees with access to a wellness program report higher job satisfaction.
  3. Understand Bias: Recognizing and addressing biases is a fundamental step towards becoming an ethical leader. Biases can manifest in various forms such as educational, gender-based, age-based, or race-based biases, and it is vital to identify and rectify these prejudices within yourself. Additionally, embracing the concept of intersectionality, a term coined by Kimberlee Crenshaw, can be essential. It enables you to understand the complex interplay of various identities and how they influence individuals’ experiences. Acknowledging intersectionality is crucial in preventing issues like aggression, sexual misconduct, or employee-to-employee disrespect. Effective techniques to reduce bias, as highlighted by the S. Department of Justice, encompass stereotype replacement, counter-stereotypic imaging, individuation, perspective-taking, and increased opportunities for contact. Moreover, the Harvard Business Review suggests four key methods for leaders to alleviate the pressure to act unethically. It is critical for managers and leaders to consider a broad range of potential problems rather than solely focusing on the most egregious types of unethical behavior. By understanding the smaller forms of unethical conduct that can emerge due to insufficient comprehension of your employees or leadership anxieties, you can prevent more severe ethical lapses.
  4. Foster Emotional Intelligence:Elevating your emotional intelligence is a critical aspect of ethical leadership. Beyond developing emotional intelligence within yourself, you should actively promote this skill among your team members and colleagues who lead other small groups. Research indicates that leaders with high emotional intelligence experience less pressure to behave unethically and are less likely to encounter workplace tension. Effective communication is another key component of fostering emotional intelligence. By establishing clear ethical standards and effectively communicating them to your team, you can ensure that your group knows what to advocate for and that they feel comfortable addressing concerns. This approach is pivotal in reducing the likelihood of employees feeling like they are a problem to their supervisor. A high level of emotional intelligence leads to more effective leadership, as leaders who possess strong emotional intelligence are four times less likely to make mistakes in their roles. Additionally, the Chartered Governance Institute U.K. & Ireland found that excellent leadership is a factor in 90% of what distinguishes high-performing leaders from those with similar qualifications.
  5. Lead in Different Small Group Settings: Ethical leadership extends beyond the workplace and should permeate all aspects of your life. Work and private life are becoming increasingly intertwined due to changing relationships between employers and employees, the growth of flexible work arrangements, remote work, and the influence of the internet and mobile technologies. In a contemporary context, employees frequently engage in personal matters during work hours, and conversely, they often continue working outside of their traditional work hours. Leading ethically in your daily life helps you seamlessly apply these principles in small group settings outside the workplace. The Illinois CPA Society, a prominent organization, suggests various practices to maintain strong leadership in a remote or hybrid setting. One practical approach is establishing mentor relationships with adjacent teams within your organization. This can be especially beneficial as employees often feel more comfortable confiding in colleagues from other groups. Furthermore, providing education on cyber confidentiality skills and implementing anonymous feedback portals are strategies that not only alleviate the responsibility of leadership but also reduce stress among your employees.

Ultimately, as a leader, it’s vital to ensure that your personal morals and values align with those you communicate to your team. Consistency in ethical leadership creates a lasting impact and fosters a habitual commitment to morality and ethics. Aristotle’s wisdom, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence then is not an act but a habit,” underlines the importance of consistently striving for ethical excellence, both in your professional and personal life. This commitment ensures that you and your team maintain a strong moral and ethical code across diverse small group settings.

Here’s a list of sources that will help build your leadership! 

Employee Wellness Platforms – Here is a list of the top 10 best employee wellness platforms. As a small group leader, this may be something to discuss with either your higher-ups to implement in your company or your small team separately.

4-7-8 Breathing – Here is a YouTube link to a video that will guide you through 4-7-8 breathing. Bookmark for when needed!

4 Simple Questions to Ask when Making Ethical Decisions – This resource provides a list of questions to ask yourself, “Is this ethical” before making a decision that will impact you and your small group.

Outback Team Building – Outback Team Building is the number corporate team building in North America. This resource provides fun team-building activities that help you get to know your employees so that you can better understand their backgrounds, identity, personality, and interests and know how to lead ethically with additive knowledge of understanding your team first.

Indeed – Code of Ethics – This resource addresses how to make a code of ethics with your group. Use this resource to guide yourself through a productive session of setting standards and asking your group what they want to add.

On Intersectionality: Essential Writings – Link to the book “On Intersectionality: Essential Writings” by Kimberlee Crenshaw, who coined the term intersectionality, explaining this idea’s importance.

Loom – Ethics – Loom, an screen recording application used widely by businesses and professionals, discusses the ethics of remote teamwork and what to keep in mind. This resource is helpful because of all the activities, meetings, and events that can be done remotely or virtually for any setting, work, or personal.

Brooke Deterline TED Talk – A Ted talk about ethical culture in the workplace by Brooke Deterline. The Corporate Director of the Heroic Imagination Project has “a mission to use important findings in psychology to equip ordinary people of all ages with the knowledge, skills, and strategies necessary to choose wise and effective acts of heroism during challenging moments in their lives.”

Reducing bias – Five tips by the U.S. Department of Justice for reducing bias.

This piece was edited by Lily Cook as part of Professor Kelley Crawford’s Digital Civic Engagement course at Tulane University. 


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