Diminishing Fear

By Judith E. Glaser and Nancy Snell | Leadership Excellence
Published August 2006

Unravel all of your mixed messages.

Fear somehow touches almost every aspect of our lives. It is woven invisibly into the fabric of our existence and often sets into motion a chain of reactions and circumstances.

As leaders we need to ensure that fear does not consume our workplaces and degrade the performance of our people. The key to reducing fear at work is direct and clear communication that eliminates mixed messages—the catalytic driver of fear.

Communicative people are less fearful and more secure because they know where they stand. They are less afraid to ask the awkward questions and less intimidated to have difficult conversations. They know that metamessages live inside of every communication, and they strive to create clarity and understanding.

For example, if you seek new business, you may fail to keep your team in the loop. As time passes, you leave your team without a leader. Soon your people feel disconnected from your activities. Worst-case scenarios seem to be whispered, and one-onone side conversations echo the halls.

As a result, fear starts to dominate your team. It shows up as people start distrusting your leadership capability, turning to other leaders outside the team for advice and information, creating concentric circles of communication with others, and building mountains out of molehills.

Our sense of security and well being are profoundly affected by how well we are kept in the vital loop, how well our leaders interpret and integrate the dynamics and complexities of workplace life for us.

Interpreting Meta-Messages

Fear is a natural response to a perception about the future. Employee fear often becomes the ever-present fabric when their managers and leaders are suddenly behind closed doors, speaking in hushed tones, and refusing to address rumors directly. This sends a very direct message. Great leaders put themselves in someone else’s shoes temporarily in an effort to interpret these events for them in a straightforward and truthful way. In doing so, they create a sense of calmness, control, forward movement, security, and direction. Unless leaders set a clear and explicit context for this communication, employees create their own worst-case scenarios.

Fear elevates under certain conditions. Lack of shared focus, purpose, and vision creates confusion. Lack of communication opens the door to paranoia (the ultimate fear response). Lack of interpersonal communication causes more emotion, misunderstanding, and fear. Emotions have a dramatic effect on our success. Positive emotional connection is good for business. Lack of respect for others undermines security, which causes resentment—another form of fear. Failure to tap the inner talent and creativity causes deeper isolation and fear. Failure to develop team agreements, strategies, and decisionmaking policies enhances isolation. Management’s self-serving and exclusionary approaches cause isolation and fear among employees. Negativity and complaining become both the cause and effect of fear. Low morale due to leadership’s inability to acknowledge the truth causes fear.

Tips for Leaders

How can you as a leader build an environment where people feel safe? Mixed messages cause employees to retreat into fear. For example, when you say you care about keeping people in the loop, yet fail to do so, you send meta-messages. When you talk at employees and give directives, but do not ask questions to clarify understanding, you set the context for mixed messages. Inevitably employees will think one thing while you say something else, and confusion will result. Mixed messages create a metaphorical moat. We don’t know which side of the river we are standing on, and without the security of knowing where we stand, we can’t do our best.

Instead of allowing mixed-messages and worst-case scenarios to take over, set the context for inclusion:

  • Don’t be afraid to stand up for your people. Create a safe environment so they know that you are there for them. When having vital conversations about the future direction, minimize misunderstandings. Repeat what employees say and ask questions to uncover hidden implications. Be sure that reviews are realistic so that people know exactly where they stand at all times. Be genuinely interested and acknowledge good effort and accomplishments for others to see. Clarify what employees are saying before drawing conclusions or making assumptions.
  • Keep an open mind even if you disagree with what is being said so you can understand employee concerns. Remember emotions don’t always reside in logic; they reside in fear, and that’s what you want to release, not amplify. Evaluate information without bias. Ask questions to hear concerns.
  • Respond rather than react. Acknowledge employees’ issues and points of view; listen actively so that you can respond. Listen to the logic and the emotion—convey that you hear what is being said at all levels.
  • Accept responsibility for the impact of the way you are communicating. Walk the talk—people will know that they can trust you. Say what you mean and mean what you say!
  • Don’t be a people pleaser—speak the truth. Be a change agent. Take timely action. Give constructive feedback.
  • Understand how unspoken fear is affecting your business. Dealing with it by unraveling mixed messages will have a big bottom-line payoff.

ACTION: Turn down fear and turn up clarity.

Raising Our IQ

By Judith E. Glaser and Nancy Snell | Leadership Excellence
Published July 2006

It takes we-centric leadership.

No work is more important for a leader than creating a culture in which all team members can contribute. That raises the collective IQ of the company and pays big dividends as the business gleans ideas for new strategies and improved processes.

Before most workers will share their ideas and insights, leaders must create the environment for sharing— it doesn’t happen by telling people to do it. Leaders who create a culture in which decisions are made at the top can’t turn on a dime and ask for help from the troops. They don’t have the credibility. To develop it, they first must regard as assets the experiences, observations, and imaginations of their people—and create opportunities for them to experience what “we” can do for everyone.

Shifting Patterns

We find that coaching—for the leader and by the leader—can help change the culture and get people to see themselves as empowered team players. When an executive learns to communicate in a “we-centric” way, the IQ of the organization rises.

First, it helps to identify and break down some of the attitudes and behaviors of I-Centric leaders—patterns that make them less effective than they could be. These individuals refuse to share power or speak candidly for fear they will appear weak or soft. The I-Centric leader, perhaps unintentionally, turns the focus of the organization inward, because everybody wants to know what the all-powerful boss is up to. The company takes its collective eye off the customer—with predictable results.

I-Centric leaders often assume that voicing their ideas and repeating them will cause employees to embrace them. It doesn’t work that way. They fall into the Tell-Sell-and- Yell Syndrome and create resistance rather than engagement. I-Centric leaders want to be the last word on everything. For these people, winning means somebody else has to lose. They never admit mistakes.

By contrast, we-centric leaders are not hung up on status and maintaining ultimate authority. They lead by example—showing others that it is essential to listen as well as talk, to share information and to learn from mistakes. They share power at meetings by giving the lead to your employees so they learn how to lead too. They seek feedback by asking, “How am I doing as a leader?” and listening and being open to change. They focus everyone on pleasing the client by turning attention outward, to the market. They share a framework for change by setting over-arching goals, asking people for strategies to achieve them, and engaging people in both. They behave like a leader by creating environments for success for everyone. They break down silos by identifying areas where territoriality is getting in the way, finding strategies to end turf wars, foster cooperation, and require teams of people to work together. They model the change by changing how they interact with others, admitting when they are wrong and showing that they can turn a mistake into a learning moment. They focus on creating the future by asking, “What can we create together that will enhance our business. And they celebrate we by sharing the credit and spreading the praise—emphasizing “we are all in this together.”

Putting WE in Action

Once the leader has started creating a We culture, team coaching is a way to engage people. Start asking employees for their help in identifying ways to improve partnering, performance and profitability. This exercise determines what constitutes excellence for you, creates a common language about what good looks like, and helps to identify what is good and working.

Sharing culture. Sharing ideas, and best practices routinely is an essential way of elevating skills, generating enthusiasm, reinforcing culture, and building mutual trust so necessary for growth and profitability. As colleagues learn from each other, they are more apt to develop an “appreciative culture” where sharing is the norm.

Evolve your DNA: Don’t expect overnight results. This process needs to become part of culture. As leaders repeatedly ask questions about how to do the job better, they create a virtual cycle of discovery, collaboration, and innovation. They create a community of colleagues who look forward to coming to work every day.

  • Dialogue: These conversations need to be “dialogues” not “talk-ats.” Set the ground rules and determine the scope and objectives, so each member can play a role in creating the future. Organize groups around common experiences to share best practices—a team of sales executives, or a team of marketing executives. Pay attention to group dynamics; don’t let any one person, even the boss, dominate.
  • Diversity: Select team members for diversity of viewpoint—in the clash of ideas new insights are formed.
  • Describe Impact: Ask team members to describe processes they use that have a positive impact. Talk about how they can transfer this knowledge to others and how it can be applied across functions.

As a leader, you need to promote mutuality and counter territoriality and silo thinking by encouraging everyone to grow with you. As everyone receives feedback on their ideas, performance and behavior, your organizational IQ (and profitability) grow exponentially. It’s a win-win, which is what We-Centric leadership is all about.

ACTION: Shift to we-centered leadership.

Extreme Behaviors

By Judith E. Glaser and Viviane Amar | Leadership Excellence
Published April 2005

Learn to lead through insight.

Healthy cultures, like healthy people, emanate positive energy, feel good to customers, and draw us to want to work in them and with them. When a culture is healthy, people work together synergistically to achieve goals. People feel included and valued, and everyone learns and grows. It’s a place we want to work, a place we’re proud of.

Reorganization, restructuring, and downsizing create environments of fear, worry, and stress, where people feel they need to protect themselves. Leaders can reduce stress and build support by monitoring their extreme behaviors.

Learning how to listen for signals of cultural health enables leaders to “early identify” problems. As leaders become aware of distress signals, they can transform negative stress into positive energy.

Eight Extreme Practices

Here are eight extreme practices that managers need to transform:

1. Leading through silence. Some organizations appear to be emotionally deaf and blind, and yet, silence talks loudly—silence about decisions and policies, about the future, about where specific job functions and the business are heading.

2. Left-brain management. This refers to a style of leadership where executives and experts seem to be compulsive consumers of reports, memos and workshops. Meanwhile, employees—the ones confronted each day with the real issues—struggle to create networks and relationships so they can get the job done.

3. Management by power. Many executives adopt forms of behavior that are irrational—the product of unresolved personal conflicts. They are largely unaware of the impact of their personality, values, beliefs, myths, fears, and taboos on the leadinership style and culture. As a result, they create pyramids that prevent them from facing outside realities.

4. Hierarchical self-centeredness. This leads to management by heliocentrism, and produces isolated managers who spend much of their time trying to justify their positions. They demand to be seen by their hierarchy in their quest for recognition. Many top managers pretend they are two persons, and that personal life and organizational life are not linked.

5. Leading by hierarchical distance. We have adopted a new style: email and post-it management. Little yellow stickers or numerous urgent emails, are replacing human contact. And yet endless meetings are still held. Elites are so firmly schooled in rationality that they forget that relationships are at the heart of life and business.

6. Leading by haziness. More people wonder whether management is aware they even exist. Their anxiety is heightened when they are confronted with vague communication and unclear messages. Some companies lack a clear idea as to what they are supposed to be doing, when and with whom. Without direction, people can’t sustain performance.

7. Leading by beliefs and taboos. This is the hallmark of those who try to maintain their credibility by concealing their areas of ignorance. But today’s employees know full well when their superiors are in the dark. The number of taboos involved is also impressive. Few people have the courage to speak out in terms of connections to others (meaning, friendship, fear, desire, hope, love). Most people simply react leadin terms of survival.

8. Leading by miracle strategies. We denounce the epidemic of recipes—the result of the incapacity of executives to anticipate and prepare the future—that claim so many casualties. Downsizing requires less imagination, vision, and anticipation—qualities executives are paid for.

Leading Through Insight

Reorganizing, restructuring, and downsizing often lead to more stress and less performance, because people wind up with greater work loads and become tactical. Strategy implementation becomes a matter of chance, not planning.

When leaders are dealing with numbers, rather than with people, they often become practitioners of managerial extremes (I-centric). No one dares to question their behaviors. When extreme behaviors dominate the leadership, fatality reigns. You sense that you’re stating openly what many people experience but avoid mentioning for fear of losing their jobs.

Most organizations are run by men and women of power, rarely by leaders. Men and women of power serve themselves at any cost, while leaders live in a state of positive contribution— at the service of the collective interest. People of power build pyramids to control and divide intelligence, information and people, while the leader develops networks and multiplies synergies and knowledge. We-centric leaders develop in others the inner power of leadership.

We have identified other key drivers to performance. They include:

  • Having shared vision and values.
  • The courage to prepare the future.
  • Consistency between words and deeds.
  • Managing individual and team performance— the “I” inside of the “We.”
  • Recognizing the value of each individual’s intelligence and potential.
  • Maintaining the team’s cohesion.
  • Developing a culture of co-responsibility, instead of scapegoating
  • Placing the client at the center.

The climate of mutual support motivates people. Managing by values enables leaders to sustain performance

ACTION: Create a We-centric culture.