Answer the following questions to determine the level of fear in your organization:
- Are people in your organization afraid to admit their mistakes?
- Are they reluctant to open up in meetings but when the boss steps out for a phone call they can’t wait to get their opinions on the table?
- Is there an extreme sense of level consciousness? Do people refer (and defer) to titles, as in, “He’s a director and she’s only a manager”?
- Do you have plenty of rules, policies and procedures that govern what people do…or else?
- Is information horded? Do people get information only when “they need to know”?
- Are appearances a big deal—how you look and how you present?
- Do you have pre-meetings before the real meetings because you want no surprises and, god forbid, no spontaneity or creativity that might otherwise interfere with oh-so-serious business discussions?
- Are meetings often expressions of CYA, where people attend to protect themselves or their self-interests?
Did you answer yes to more than a few of these questions? Welcome to the Culture of Fear.
Two of my favorite business books—written 32 years apart—address fear, among other subjects, and its impact on organizational performance.
In his book, Out of the Crisis, Edwards Deming, best known for launching the total quality management movement initially in Japan and then in the United States, wrote that organizations must drive out fear. “No one can put in his best performance unless he feels secure,” Deming wrote. “Secure means without fear, not afraid to express ideas, not afraid to ask questions. Fear takes on many faces. A common denominator of fear in any form, anywhere is loss from impaired performance and padded numbers,” he wrote.
In Creativity Inc., Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration, Ed Catmull, president of Pixar Animation and Disney Animation, wrote that “managers must trust the people they work with and strive to clear the path for them; and always, they must pay attention to and engage with anything that creates fear.”
Fear is debilitating. It sucks the fun out of going to work. It takes away any sense of purpose that people may feel when they trek in from the parking lot wondering who is out to get them today. And it makes it impossible to create a great customer-centric business.
Fear comes from an inward focus on avoiding loss, which means protecting power and erecting processes that regulate what’s done and not done. A process culture in excess is a bureaucracy.
What can leaders do to knock out a Culture of Fear? Here are some steps.
- Build trust by opening up your organization. Jack Stack, pioneer of the open book management concept, says there’s no better way to build trust than to open the books.
- Acknowledge to your people that you know that fear exists and that it must be eradicated if your organization and its team members are going to achieve any semblance of excellence.
- Invite your people to identify why fear exists and then invite them to implement a specific plan to eliminate its root causes.
- Clarify a customer-focused vision. Eliminate any activities, projects, programs or processes that don’t add value to the customer—that the customer wouldn’t be willing to pay for. This will help you begin the shift from an internally focused process culture to an externally focused entrepreneurial culture that’s directed at meeting and, where appropriate, exceeding customer expectations.
- Be authentic. “The best managers acknowledge and make room for what they do not know—not just because humility is a virtue but because until one adopts that mindset, the most striking breakthroughs cannot occur,” Catmull advises. If you’re “not experiencing failure then you’re making a far worse mistake. You are being driven by your desire to avoid it.”
- Align your processes and systems to the customer—rewards, recognition, measurement, technology, learning and development and work processes.
- Let loose. Catmull again: “I believe that managers must loosen the controls, not tighten them.”
Once you have implemented these steps, watch how your people take the business to places they never thought they could go.