But, core employees aren’t the only ones with boogeymen in their closets. Leaders have their own issues to deal with. When I lead group performance turnarounds for clients, the leaders in these organizations have tough choices to make that often threaten their infatuation with security and control. In many cases, leaders have to decide if they’re willing to give these things up in order to try new ways of operating—ways that may be uncomfortable or unproven to them in their experience—with no guarantee that things will work out the way they hope. For some, the fear of loosening their grip on the reins while retaining accountability for results is too much to bear and they find their knuckles turning white as we move further from the familiar.
Their fear reveals itself in a colorful array of responses. In one client organization, a leader constantly tried to redesign our consulting sessions to match the energizing pep rallies that had become the organization’s default response to signs of employee discontent. He even showed up early to one meeting with copies of skits and group party games encouraging us to insert them every hour so the meeting wouldn’t “get too serious.” The leaders in this organization had found “fun” to be a useful band-aid in place of confronting and resolving difficult issues. The closer they came to having to deal with issues, the more they resisted and resorted to their avoidance tactic which was to cover up the discontent with fun activities.
A leader in another organization interrogated certain employees after every meeting to stay on top of everything that could possibly affect her. She thought that by prying information from the employees she would know about any potential changes soon enough to lobby other leaders and keep a lid on anything new.
L eader fears often fall into three categories: fear of how employees will respond to information previously withheld, fear that they will have to change in unfamiliar ways, and fear of accountability with less control. All are legitimate responses to transformational change. All are normal and have to be confronted. Unfortunately, for some it’s very difficult and there are no painless solutions. In most cases, the best way to move forward is to confront the unknown with courage and conviction, and test the hypothesis that change can bring about a better outcome while no change will maintain the current state. It’s sort of an unsatisfying get-over-it type of solution. But, despite all the techniques for helping people confront their fears, ultimately, it’s stepping into the unknown and trying things out that gives change the chance for success.
In a manufacturing company experiencing the early stages of a turnaround initiative, a plant manager asked how he would know when the transformation was complete. A colleague said the manager would know when, on the last Friday of the month, with shipments behind schedule, he left early without worrying about it over the weekend—in other words, when he was able to come to grips with his fears and trust that the line staff would finish things as if the business were their own.
Perhaps it’s time to add a fifteenth mantra to Deming’s list: Resolve fear in the leadership. Dr. Deming identified leaders as the means of driving fear out of the workplace. But until they overcome their own fears of security and control, leaders will have a hard time creating a fear-free workplace for others.
Trying it on for fit: When performance insufficiencies demand new approaches to situations, it’s often helpful to define specific changes leaders will have to make and help them confront their fears. Here is a process for doing so:
- Help each leader to identify which changes they find most fearful and difficult, and articulate what is fearful about them. The articulation of fear should include what they fear may happen if they are to make the changes, and an analysis of both probability and severity of feared consequences.
- Each leader then makes a list of actions they would take to reduce the effects of consequences they most fear without compromising the effectiveness of the new approaches. (Pilot groups and time periods can provide means of testing the success of new approaches, but must be engaged with full commitment to accurately predict success for the larger group or time period.)
- Remaining fears are listed as those most requiring courage to step into the unknown. Leaders should spend the most time on these developing actions to ensure they fully engage in the new approaches in spite of the challenge of doing so.
Send an email and let me know what you learn from your experiences. I would love to hear from you!