Fear: Driving Corporate Mediocrity

Six years ago I read Seth Godin’s Linchpin: Are you Indispensable? It pushed me across the finish line to never say “I can’t” or sit on the sidelines of inaction, imprisoned by a false definition of my work and title. The lizard brain wants you to fear. A linchpin smells fear and runs towards and through it.

In most of the corporate world, fear controls decisions. Coming out of a recent heavy change management leadership role, I thought I’d share my observations on fear driven outcomes and my experiences in how to push teams to bulldoze through the fear to being indispensable.

Two themes: Fear of Change and Fear of Confrontation

1.     Fear of Change: This usually looks like lack of structure. Lack of accountability. Both of which lead to extended and stagnant execution timelines. Culminating in an exit of talent (linchpins!) from the organization and subsequent impact to the health of the business.
a.     What Fear Looks Like: A litany of excuses: “We’ll do this later because… I have performance issues. I have a small team. If I do this, all the work will fall on me and I have no bandwidth. I have a long list of issues to address and need to prioritize other things. Changing things will only add to my list. I trust that people will do the right thing for the company.”
b.     The Fearless Approach: What better way to address performance issues than to move to action, hold people accountable and coach/develop your team? The biggest excuse I hear is, “if they fail, it will impact the business.” BS. If you’re doing your job, you’re setting up teams to win. It’s damn hard work. Regular and frequent 1:1s to identify fires before they happen. Documenting performance issues and having a live conversation for immediate feedback. Why is this so hard for so many organizations? Fear. Fear that one person leaving the organization (regrettable or non-regrettable) will impact the business. If you ever find yourself leading a team where one person is the single point of failure, you know immediately that you have been leading with fear and not addressing an urgent decision that needs to be made across people, process and/or technology. I have never seen one person carry the success of an organization.

I’d like to suggest we ban the word “bandwidth” from corporate America. Bandwidth is the energy or mental capacity required to deal with a situation.
Last time I checked, the only way to ensure your team is being developed and empowered to deliver and grow is to do the work (energy) of showing them what your expectations are (mental capacity) and then inspecting what you expect (situation). Make no mistake – this isn’t diving into every detail. This is being clear on the priorities, the outcome and then empowering the team to get things done. Which leads me to the next fear that collapses organizations…

Lack of accountability. Corporations highly underestimate the value of a clear structure. Structure provides clear accountability by defining roles & responsibilities. With accountability comes action. I’m amazed at how many organizations fight this simple exercise due to perceived disruption. The quickest way to stall M&As or start losing top talent is to put off structure. This includes leveling and scope consistencies. Many HR organizations like to think people don’t compare themselves against their peers. And this is simply ignoring why militaristic, command and control organizations work so well (fire departments, police, and military organizations). Consistency. All levels have transparent and defined roles, responsibilities and scope. Decision makers are clear. People do what’s right for the company when they have clear direction.

Change will shorten the issues list. And more often than not, when an issue is dealt with and removed, the business gets better. You find gems in the company that were otherwise stifled or almost walking out the door.

2.     Fear of Confrontation
a.     What Fear Looks Like: Everyone is cordial in person and back stabbing in the hallways. This is the surest way to let fear rule an organization. This behavior will destroy a culture like a fast moving cancer.
b.     The Fearless Approach: It is imperative that leaders have a no tolerance policy for this kind of behavior. What does that look like? Immediate 1:1 direct feedback on the behavior observed, why it will not be tolerated and the suggested approach going forward. The best leaders do this swiftly. In person 1:1. Immediately after the event. You feel the severity and you don’t do it again. And the great thing is you develop a culture that learns how to confront people in a way that is respectful and drives collaboration and execution across teams and organizations.

In one of my first management jobs I had a tenured direct report 15+ years my senior. I was made aware of several conversations she was having with other direct reports and cross functional partners unhappy with my approach to driving action both in and post meetings. I was seething. And then realized a live conversation was needed immediately. As the new manager, I couldn’t let this fester. I’ll never forget my heart racing as I sat at her desk and made her aware of the feedback I had received. Then the best thing happened – I asked her why she didn’t like what I was doing and what I could do differently. What ensued was a great learning for me. That one question enabled me to build a bridge of trust that still exists with this person today, long after we departed ways to different companies, and she even adopted some of the very practices that she complained about.

Confrontation doesn’t have to be a negative experience if you practice the mantra from Epictetus: We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak.

Organizations that make decisions based on fear lose. Lose talent. Lose revenue. Lose innovation.

To close, I nod to “Star Wars Day – May the 4th be with you,” and my favorite character, Yoda.