Leadership Barometer 21 Build a Safe Environment

October 18, 2019

 Here is one of my favorite measures for the quality of a leader.

Build a SAFE Environment

In most organizations, there is a continual environment of fear. What we need to realize is that there are different kinds of fear. There is the fear due to market conditions or competition that may make a company go bankrupt.

We have learned over the past decade that just because a company is great now is no guarantee it will even exist in a year or two. There is really no such thing as lifelong job security anymore.

Longevity not guaranteed

As an example, look at Circuit City. In the early years of the 2000’s, it was on top of the heap, and even qualified as one of the “Great” companies in Jim Collins’ book Good to Great. By 2008, the company was history.

So, it is not surprising that few people feel the kind of job security that most individuals felt in the 80’s and 90’s. It is just a fact of life, and that kind of fear needs to be used to create the impetus to do better on a daily basis.

More common fear

The more crippling kind of fear is a nagging feeling that if I tell the truth about something to my boss, I am going to suffer some kind of punishment. It may not be an immediate demotion or dismissal, but eventually I will be negatively impacted in ways I may not even recognize.

So, I clam up and do not share thoughts that could be helpful to my organization.

Create the right culture

Great leaders create an environment where this kind of fear is nearly nonexistent. My favorite quote about this, that I note on my corporate website, is “The absence of fear is the incubator of trust.” In a culture where there is no fear, trust grows spontaneously, much like the mold on last week’s bread, only in this case, the mold is a blessing.

Reinforce candor

So, what is the mechanism by which great leaders create this lack of fear? They do it by “reinforcing candor.” They let people know they will not be punished for speaking their truth.

Reward rather than punish

On the contrary, these leaders show by words and deeds that people who speak up are actually rewarded for sharing something scary or just not right. That safety gives these leaders the opportunity to correct small problems before they have huge negative consequences for the organization.

That is brilliant leadership!

If you are a leader, focus on one thing when someone tells you something you did not want to hear.  Focus your actions on making the person glad he or she brought it up. That behavior is the most constructive thing you can do to build a culture of trust within your organization.

Bob Whipple is CEO of Leadergrow Inc., a company dedicated to growing leaders. He speaks and conducts seminars on building trust in organizations. He can be reached at bwhipple@leadergrow.com or 585-392-7763.


Group Punishment

June 30, 2013

Child punishmentIf you have siblings, you remember the drill very well. Your mother comes in and says, “Who knocked over the lamp in the living room?” Of course, nobody knows. She looks around at the children, and each of them is playing dumb. Since she cannot determine whom to blame, she announces the punishment, “Then none of you will get dessert for the rest of the week.”

Group punishments for the sins of a single individual are more common than we think. It happens in the military on a daily basis. If nobody owns up to a misdeed, the entire platoon is penalized with the same punishment as the single guilty soldier would have received. The logic is that one person really is guilty, and the remaining people are guilty of covering up for him, so everyone suffers equally. The leverage is that it puts peer pressure on the guilty person to fess up. In some cases the ploy works, but in others the group solidarity is strong. In the end, the group will find other ways to punish the guilty individual that are not always obvious.

In our society, government has a similar tendency to punish the masses for the sins of the few. It has led to numerous infringements on privacy, like red light cameras, the TSA ordeal we all undergo when trying to get on a plane, gun control, and countless other well-meaning laws and policies that are meant to save the many from the excesses of the few.

Here is another example of the government punishing everyone for the sins of a few. Every publicly-owned company has been forced to spend large sums of money in order to comply with the Sarbanes Oxley Act. This extra cost is a direct result of some high profile unethical corporate abuses by a few corporations over a decade ago. All publicly-owned companies suffer for the prior sins of a few defective organizations and their leaders. This suffering is a lot more than meets the eye, because organizations outside the USA are not saddled with a Sarbanes Oxley Act, and have a competitive cost advantage.

You can see the same pattern in organizations. The boss notices that an individual is leaving work early a couple times a week, so he issues a reminder of hours of work for the whole organization. This leads one cynical employee to blow a bugle at quitting time to let people know when it is time to go home.

It is natural to want to fix the problem when trust has been broken, but we need to ask what price we pay when so many aspects of daily life are regimented and people are forced to pay for the mistakes of others. Does it make people want to be less accountable for their own actions? Does it demotivate them by stifling creative instincts? Does it discourage them from taking risks? Is it fair?

I think of what the world would be like if we did not have a tendency to punish the many for the sins of a few. What would happen if we encouraged personal responsibility and building trust and transparency by reinforcing candor. It would be a different place for sure. When you ask your children who broke the lamp in the other room, one of them would say, “I did, Mommy, and I am sorry.” It would be a kinder, gentler world with far fewer dumb rules we have to follow because a few unscrupulous people cannot be trusted to do the right things.