Drive Out Fear

April 15, 2012

Several decades ago, the now-deceased quality guru, W. Edwards Deming came up with a list of 14 key points for leaders to take that would accomplish what he called “profound knowledge.” Point number 8 on his list was “drive out fear.” I believe this was one of the most powerful concepts on his famous list. The reason is that the absence of fear is a prerequisite for higher trust, and trust is the most important ingredient to higher organizational productivity. In this article, I will share seven tips to help drive out fear.

Fear is one on the most basic of human instincts. It is fear that allowed humanoids to survive during primitive times, and it is still the basis of survival today. Without fear, you would not take the time to look both ways before crossing the street. Too much constraining fear in the organizational context can produce a gridlock of activities among the people that prevent the establishment of trust. Let’s look at some tips that leaders can use to reduce the fear in the workplace, and thus help to increase trust.

Be more transparent

When people are kept in the dark about what things are happening that can affect them, it is only natural to become afraid. When leaders contemplate draconian actions in sealed conference rooms, the word spreads like fire in a tinderbox. Some future actions must not be shared for legal reasons, but in many cases leaders attempt to shelter people from possible actions because they do not want to cause panic. That attitude is false logic. More panic ensues from speculation than would be present if full disclosure was given.

Reinforce Candor

Praise rather than punish people for sharing their observations about inconsistencies. In most organizations, people do not believe it is safe to tell leaders the truth about their observations. Their livelihood might be at stake. When leaders invite open dialog on sensitive issues and reinforce people who verbalize their fears, it tends to extinguish the rumor mill and build a foundation of higher trust.

Be Kind

Treating people with dignity and respect is nothing more than following the Golden Rule. If leaders consistently treated people the way they would like to be treated if the roles were reversed, there would be much less fear in the workplace. When people feel intimidated or bullied, they naturally cower in fear for what might happen to them.

Develop more Emotional Intelligence

Emotional Intelligence is your ability to understand emotions and your skill at being able to use that knowledge to manage yourself and your relationships with others. This skill allows leaders to act in ways that foster open dialog and lower fear. A very good book to help people gain higher EQ is Emotional Intelligence 2.0 by Bradberry and Greaves.

Level with people

Be honest with people and let them know of any improvement opportunities in a supportive way. When people know you are sincerely trying to help them improve, they will be less fearful. Each person has some insecurity regardless of his or her history. Helping people grow is a great way to lower fear.

Care about others

Fear has a hard time growing in an environment where people truly care about each other. The expressions of empathy and sympathy when people are struggling mean they will feel supported in their darkest hours. They forster courage and faith that most problems are only temporary setbacks, and that life itself is an amazing journey.

Trust other people

When trust is present, fear has a hard time surviving. When leaders show that they have faith in the ability of people to do the right things, then they do not project a kind of “gotcha” environment that is evident in many organizations. The result is that people are not on edge wondering when the next outburst will occur.

The absence of unnecessary fear is a huge benefit for any organization. Some fear is good for the self preservation of individuals and organizations, but keeping it at the lowest possible level is liberating and will bring out the best in people.


8 “Be-Attitudes” of Holding People Accountable

June 12, 2011

A frequent refrain of top managers is that “we need to do a better job of holding people accountable.” Accountability seems to be the mantra for organizational get well programs these days. I can agree with this in part, and yet there is an aspect of accountability that feels to me like a cop out.

The key to leadership is to create an environment whereby people do the best they can because they want to do it. When employees know it is clearly in their best interest to give their maximum discretionary effort to the organization, managers don’t have to crack the whip as often. Imagine working in an environment where people do the right things not because they are expected, but because it is in their best interest. In that atmosphere, holding people accountable would nearly always be a positive occurrence rather than negative. How refreshing!

It is the actions, attitudes, and intentions of leaders, not the rank and file, that make the environment of either reinforcement or punishment the habitual medication for individual performance issues. Let’s examine 8 attitudes or behaviors of leaders that can foster a culture where holding people accountable is a precursor to a feeling of celebration instead of a sentence to the dungeon.

Be clear about your expectations – It happens every day. The boss says, “You did not file the documents correctly by client; you totally messed up.” Then, the assistant says, “You never told me to file them by client, so I used my initiative and filed them by date because that is what they taught us in Record Retention.” Holding people accountable when the instructions are vague is like beating an untethered horse for wandering off the path to eat grass.

Be sure of your facts – I learned a painful lesson about this early in my career. I gave my administrative assistant a letter to type for a customer. When I got it back, the letter was full of obvious errors. I immediately held her accountable for the sloppy work and called her into a small conference room to let her know of my disappointment. When I told her about the errors, she said, “Well if you had taken the time to notice the initials on the bottom of the letter, you would have seen that I farmed that work out to Alice because I was busy with other things. I did not type that letter.” Gulp. I tried to cover with, “I am glad, because your work is usually higher quality than that,” but the irrevocable damage had been done. If you are going to accuse someone of sloppy work, make sure it was done by that person.

Be timely – If there is an issue with performance versus stated expectations, bring the matter up immediately. If you wait for a couple days before trying to bring up the issue, it just tends to cloud and confuse the person who did not meet expectations. If a boss says, “You did not answer the phone in the proper way last week,” how is the employee supposed to even remember the incident?

Be Kind – Always apply the Golden Rule liberally. If you had a lapse in performance, justified or not, how would you want to get the information? Keep in mind that some people are more defensive than others, so if you like your feedback “straight from the shoulder,” tone it down when dealing with a particularly sensitive individual.

Be Consistent – If you are a stickler for certain behaviors, make sure you apply the discipline consistently. Coming down hard on Mike for being late for work can seem unfair if you habitually let Mary waltz in 45 minutes after the start of the shift. Always avoid the appearance of playing favorites. Recognize that, as a human being, you do have differences in your attitudes toward people, but when holding people accountable, you must apply the same standards across the board.

Be Discrete – Embarrassing a person in public will create a black mark that will live for a long time. If there is an issue of performance, share the matter with the individual privately and in a way that upholds the dignity of the person. This issue also refers to the Golden Rule.

Be Gracious – Forgiving a person who has failed to deliver on expectations is sometimes a way to set up better performance in the future. Get help for individuals who need training or behavior modification. A leader needs to be mindful of his or her personal contribution to the problem through past actions, like not dealing with a problem when it is small. If the current infraction is a habitual problem or one born out of laziness, greed, or revenge, then stronger measures are needed. People cannot be allowed to continually fail to meet expectations. The corrective measures will be based on the severity and longevity of the problem. One caveat: gracious behavior cannot be faked, so be sure you are calm and have dealt with your own emotions before speaking to the employee.

Be Balanced – This is an incredibly important concept. There is nothing written on a stone tablet that says all forms of accountability must be negative. In fact, I love it when someone holds me accountable for all the wonderful things I have done along the way. If we view accountability as both a positive and a corrective concept, then we can remove much of the stigma associated with the word. When I hear a top manager say, “We need to hold our people accountable,” I assure you that it means negative feedback in most cases. This is an easy thing to change by simply modifying our pattern of feedback.

Holding people accountable is a great concept if it is used in a consistent, kind, and thoughtful way. Try changing the notion of accountability in your work area to incorporate the 8 “Be-Attitudes” above, and you will have a significant improvement in your culture.


Leading Without Bullying

November 21, 2010

As I was having breakfast today, I was gazing out the window watching some robins chase each other around the back yard. I started thinking of the various animal species and the fact that in every group of animals, a certain amount of bullying behavior goes on. It is a “survival of the fittest” world in the animal kingdom. Maybe that is why we humans often exhibit some form of bullying behavior in order to get our way.

Bullying has become a key concept in our society. We see forms of it in every area from the school yard to Congress, from the boardroom to the barroom. We universally abhor the behavior in school kids, but yet we often see it practiced unchallenged as adults.

We know the incredible destructive nature of bullying because all of us have been bullied at some point in our lives, and we know it does not feel good. We know it leads to suicide in rare cases, especially in children, because they do not know how to cope with the powerless feeling of being bullied. They would simply rather die.

It is also true that each one of us has been guilty of bullying another person at some point. If you wish to deny that, you need to think harder. Some of us have played the role of the bully more than others. Some managers have it down to a fine art. Unfortunately, people in power positions have a greater temptation to use bullying because it is a way to obtain compliance. The problem is that, in organizations, mere compliance is not going to get the job done.

Organizational bullying is not confined to verbal abuse or strong body language. It also occurs when headstrong managers become so fixated on their own agenda that it renders them effectively deaf to the ideas or concerns of others. They become like a steamroller and push their agenda with little regard for what others think. In this area, there is a fine line between being a passionate, driving leader who really believes and advocates for the goal versus one who is willing to hear and consider alternate points of view.

While we are mammals, we have a more developed brain and greater power to reason than lesser species. If we use that power, we should realize that bullying behavior usually leads to the opposite of what we are trying to achieve. It may seem like a convenient expedient, but it does not work well in the long run.

If you are an elk, you are only thinking of the situation at hand and reacting to a threat to your power or position. You are not thinking longer term about relationships and possible future alliances, nor do you care how your behaviors might inspire other elk to perform at their best. The aptitude to plan and care is what separates man from the animal world.

Applying this logic in an organization is pretty simple. Managers who bully their way to get people to do their bidding are actually building up resentment and hostility. While this may produce short term compliance, it works against objectives long term. By taking a kinder approach, managers can achieve more consistent results over the long haul and obtain full cooperation from people rather than simple compliance.

Here are ten tips to reduce the tendency to bully other people:

1. Ask if you would want to be treated this way – Simply apply the Golden Rule.

2. Observe the reaction and body language in other people – If they cower or retreat when you bark out commands, you are coming on too strong.

3. Be sensitive to feedback – It takes courage to listen when someone tells you that you are being a bully. Ask for that feedback, and listen when it is given.

4. Speak more softly and slowly – Yelling at people makes them feel bullied even if that is not your intention. When you get excited, lower rather than raise your voice.

5. Ask for opinions often – Managers who seek knowledge as opposed to impressing their brilliance or agenda on others have less tendency to be bullies.

6. Think before speaking – Ask yourself if this is the way to gain real commitment or just temporary compliance. Is it good for the culture?

7. Reduce the number of absolutes you use – Saying “You never do anything right” cannot possibly be true. Soften absolutes to allow for some reason.

8. Listen more and talk less – When you are shouting at people you cannot possibly hear their rationale or their point of view. Hear people out; do not interrupt them.

9. Don’t attack or abuse the weak – Just because you know an individual is too insecure to fight back is no reason to run over him or her. It only reveals your own weakness.

10. Write your own epitaph – Regarding your relationships with people close to you, how would you like to be remembered after you are gone?

My breakfast observation for today was that animals have a hard time following the Golden Rule, and there is a bully in every group. We humans have the power to actually modify our behavior to think more strategically and do things that are not only right for now, but right for the long term. Caring for people creates a culture of trust that is sustainable.