Reduce fear to release potential

By Andrew Bass | Blog, Culture, Innovation, Leadership

Fear is a bigger factor in organizational life than we like to admit, and it works against many of the best-practices that are espoused by leaders and their gurus.

Reduce fear, and a lot of good things can happen.

To start with, I’ve found that senior people often have no idea how intimidated they make people feel (I’m not talking about managers who use intimidation on purpose. I’ll get to them).

I was talking to a client, a managing director in financial services. He had instituted an open-door policy but was finding that people weren’t using it. He was frustrated, because he’d learned that people were scared to talk to him about anything important.

He’s a very genuine person who would not abuse it if people were open and told him what was going on. He’d be grateful for the information and would do the right thing with it.

But, as I pointed out, his employees didn’t know about his sincerity. They had been ‘trained’ by previous employers, less enlightened managers, even at home and at school.

Most had come to the view that, as one cynic memorably put it to me: “The call for openness in an organization is a Darwinian mechanism for ‘selecting out’ the politically naive.”

That kind of cynicism is not a help when you want to release more of the potential of both individuals and the organization as a whole.

Consider innovation. It’s vital to the ongoing health of businesses. But talk of innovation often engenders fear.

Leaders will say things like “We need to fail fast”, and “If you want to increase your success rate, you need to increase your failure rate”.

Hearing this, many employees will do a quick mental calculation and decide, “Interesting, but better to concentrate on safe bets”. These are people who are answering ‘Yes’ when asked to innovate, but are then rationalising their lack of progress by saying, “I was busy with the day job.”

What can you do to reduce fear in your organization? Here are five ideas for a start:

1) Model the right behaviour. It’s no use banging on about values if prominent managers are getting away with violating them. My bank’s website tells me that one of their values is Integrity, which it describes in part as the willingness to “Challenge things I believe to be wrong and be open to challenge from others.” Yet their CEO just tried to uncover the identity of a confidential whistleblower, only to be let off with a fine and a slapped wrist. What message do employees believe? The values on the website, or the story about their boss in the newspaper?  By the same token, if you tell people to fail fast, look after them when they do.

2) Like GE’s and Intuit’s work with Lean Startup, create structures in which people can try unsuccessful things without being labelled a failure. We’re having great success using Lean Startup approaches: after all, if an ‘unsuccessful’ experiment quickly saves the company from wasting money pursuing a dead end and instead points it in the right direction, it’s an extremely valuable thing.

3) Teach people how to speak truth to power without upsetting the powerful. Have you noticed that your most reliable and conscientious sources of info are often not your most diplomatic? They upset managers who then block the information from reaching you. The skills of diplomatically framing inconvenient truths can be taught.

4) Empathy: Put yourself in your employees’ shoes. Then ask these four questions in relation to any behaviour your organization would like to see more of (like trying new things, cross-selling, reporting problems etc):

  • What will happen if I do?
  • What will happen if I don’t
  • What won’t happen if I do?
  • What won’t happen if I don’t?

On balance, is it safer to do it, or not to do it? Would YOU do it?

5) For the fifth point – dealing with those who use deliberate intimidation – take a look at this article on the website about how it takes courage to protect a culture.

Andy’s Advice: People don’t generally admit to fear at work, because they are frightened of appearing fearful. So they offer plausible-sounding rationalisations for not doing the things they fear. If you aren’t seeing the action you want and need, reducing fear may be the key.