A Confident Organization: Thriving through Safety

By Ron Carucci

Tuesday, September 15th 2015

“It’s no secret how you get promoted in this division,” lamented an interviewee during a recent organization assessment. 

“And how is that?” I replied, intentionally taking the bait.

“You are either a family friend of, a fellow alumni with, or a great suck-up to Al – the division head.  It really is that simple, and everyone will tell you so.” 

Before I could raise questions about whether anything had ever been done to address the injustices, the interviewee chimed in, “And don’t even suggest getting HR involved or trying to change it. There’s a long line of folks who ‘mysteriously disappeared’ (air quotes included) after attempting to bring about regime change. It’s scary, really.”

Piles of organization research, psychological profiling, management books, and case studies reveal the timeless truth that organizational injustices like the one described above create fear among employees. People’s fears in the workplace usually fall into three types. People fear –

Being misunderstood – misinterpreted, motives or credibility questioned, treated unfairly

Being excluded – from important decisions or advancement opportunities, ostracized for not conforming or speaking up            

Being invisible – not heard, ignored, passed over, unrecognized/unappreciated for good work

And as many have highlighted in their research (Why Fear Kills Productivity), it is those fears that cripple an employee’s ability to perform. As we’ve been discussing organizations in which people can thrive, a sense of confidence and safety is clearly central. 

The norms that erode confidence and safety and proliferate fear are all too common, and those norms emanate from both individual leaders and systemic processes. Leaders who show favoritism, punish honesty, publicly criticize, capriciously allocate resources, distance themselves from those they lead, and detach themselves from conflict habitually provoke fear around them; but it’s not just leaders. Formal organizational processes are guilty of instilling fear. HR systems like performance management and inconsistently (unjustly) administered hiring and compensation crush confidence. Budgeting processes corrupted by politics and excessive ambition incarcerate imagination. Governance processes that orchestrate illusions of inclusion and diversity slay our sense of safety. 

A cynical person may ask, what organization ISN’T that way? And you’re right. To change these things requires courage and will. It requires really believing that cowardice, uncertainty, defensiveness, and timidity are performance killers. No leader would readily say they wanted those things, but until you’ve seen a workplace of confident, idea-sharing, risk-taking, conflict-engaging, openly dissenting people, it’s hard to know the difference. 

Richard Sheridan, CEO at Menlo Innovations and author of the (great) book, Joy, Inc., deeply understands the difference, and has built a company that practices it. He says, “Freedom from fear requires feeling safe. If you feel safe, you run experiments. You stop asking permission. You avoid long, mind numbing meetings. You create a new kind of culture in which you accept that mistakes (and setbacks) are inevitable. You learn that small, fast mistakes are preferable to the big, slow deadly mistakes you are making today…. I like to think of our approach at Menlo as a cultural HVAC system. We pump fear out of the room, filter out ambiguity, adjust the cultural temperature to the setting that makes the team comfortable, and then pump safety back in. When we pump fear out of the room and give the team permission to make mistakes, the team starts to feel safe…trust one another…own mistakes without fear of reprisal….” 

Have you cultivated a cultural HVAC system? Are you actively dismantling organizational mechanisms that perpetrate injustices and intoxicate the organization with fear? Are you personally proliferating fear through behaviors you have long justified as inconsequential, having those you lead avoid you, manipulate you with filtered information, or “yes” you to curry favored nation status? 

Are you thrilled with the results your organization or team is getting? If not, take a closer look to see how fear is strangling the unleashed potential and performance you desire. You won’t have to look hard, just courageously, for the source of that fear. Maybe it’s your leader. Maybe it’s your HR or budget processes. Maybe it’s in the mirror. Maybe it’s all of the above. 

If you want an organization that thrives, there’s no way to get there but through the dismantling of whatever is provoking fear, killing safety and confidence.  Don’t rationalize not acting. Don’t dismiss the severity of what you know to be true. Don’t whine about how hard it will be to bring about change, or how much risk there is in speaking up. Don’t perpetuate the problem by being part of it. 

Instead, dig deep and start the journey toward a safe and confident community of people with whom you’re proud to work, excited to learn, and delighted to realize great performance. 


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