Assuage Fears to Make Better Decisions pt. 1

ARTICLE – Elaine O’Connor introduces her Point of View in part one of this five week series which delves into fears that drive employees to withhold or misrepresent information and how executives can take steps to alleviate these fears.

This is a five-part series sharing the Point of View of Houston Principal, Elaine O’Connor. A new part of her Point of View will be shared each week.

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Summary & Assertion

The global impact of IT project failure is $3 trillion annually, $100 billion of which is wasted by the S&P500 companies alone.[1]  Decades of research has resulted in the establishment of a project management common body of knowledge. While this addresses the rational components of projects, it has not decreased the rate of project failure or the amount of dollars wasted. Executives make bad decisions to continue to invest in failing projects because these decisions are based on inaccurate or incomplete information. What remain to be addressed are the human components of projects[2], the factors that cause employees to intentionally misrepresent or buffer the information that they give to decision makers, forcing executives into poor decisions.

Employees intentionally, either consciously or unconsciously, misrepresent information out of fear. This fear stems from the employee’s perception of and assumptions around the current culture. Out of the numerous fears that employees experience, the most notable include:

  • Fear of career impact
  • Fear of discord
  • Fear of overstepping
  • Fear of failure
  • Fear of the executive

Executives should acknowledge the existence of these fears, identify those that are most prevalent in their projects and make changes to assuage them. The result is a celebration of honest, factual reporting which enables the free flow of information to decision makers, empowering them to make the correct decision around investment in failing projects.

Background & Context

Employees are afraid. Their perception and interpretation of the culture that they see around them in the organization and on their particular project has led them to be afraid, or if already fearful, has increased their fear. What an individual fears is unique to themselves and is the product of their experiences, beliefs, expectations and insecurities. Since all employees experience the same culture, their fears have a similar basis and character.

The adage “There are three sides to every story – his side, her side and the truth” begs the question, is there actually such a thing as the true side of a story? Each of us experiences an event in our own subjective way, perceiving and interpreting it through our own unique expectations, beliefs and insecurities. We each perceive the event differently, no one being any less accurate than their neighbor, leading to a variety of perceptions of the reality of what happened, a variety of realities. Which is the true version against which all others can be measured? Each of us is inclined to think that our own interpretation is correct, due to our familiarity with ourselves and our desire to be right. Since two people can interpret an event in different ways by applying their individual expectations, it is very possible that employees will perceive the culture present in an organization differently to how the executive perceives it. Thus, executives cannot assume that they know the mindset of their employees, or worse, knowing how their employees feel believe that those feelings are wrong or unfounded. It is imperative that the executive understands that employees may feel differently about the current climate in the organization and that each sentiment is the truth for the employee because it is the reality of how they feel.

This paper is focused on the fears that cause employees to misrepresent information which prevents executives from seeing which projects are failing and should not receive further investment. The concepts discussed in the following sections can be extrapolated to apply to groups and whole organizations, but for the purposes of this paper the context is bounded within the structure of a project and the project team.

A healthy team focuses on eliminating politics and confusion. This leads to higher morale, lower turnover and higher productivity. The leader of a team should make focusing on team health a priority. Executives can tend to not find the time or energy to devote to team health because it is relatively hard to measure and harder to achieve than their technical or strategic goals. Team health requires a long lead time to effect change in the culture, which delays results and gratification. It is “squishy”, more qualitative in nature than quantitative, and so tends to be overlooked or quickly abandoned. Executives should persevere with their goal of establishing a healthy team, using their discipline and courage to address qualitative items that challenge the self-awareness of themselves and their team members, and cause them to be vulnerable, something that many people are not comfortable with.

Assuming that the team is free of physical and emotional abuse, then it is fair to expect of employees that no one makes them feel afraid. Everyone owns their own feelings. The only person who makes you feel in any particular way is yourself, and no one else. Each of us applies our own expectations, beliefs and insecurities to a situation when interpreting it and thus we choose, albeit usually unconsciously, how to feel about it. This paper addresses the fear experienced by a reasonable employee in the workplace. It is not aimed at addressing the challenges encountered by those dealing with deep seated, underlying fears.

Why does fear manifest at work? Why would reasonable people be afraid? The answer lies in the very human reluctance to be measured and judged. Some people relish and embrace it, while the majority shy away from criticism of themselves or others, something that challenges their self-awareness and forces them to be vulnerable.

The personality traits of an individual, their natural behaviors, including their tendency towards being risk adverse or risk tolerant, their maturity and their characteristic way of confronting problems (i.e. their coping mechanisms) determine the intensity with which the individual will experience these fears, along with the level of energy required for them to confront and overcome fear.

The aspects which help or hinder individuals to overcome fear include environmental, personal and procedural. Environmental aspects include the sequence of events that follow the failure of a project. Does the executive punish those involved in the failed venture by firing or reassigning them, withholding bonuses or using them as an example to others of the consequences of failure? Or, does the executive lead retrospective sessions to explore what went wrong to identify how to avoid making those mistakes again and then moves on, reinforcing an environment in which people are allowed to fail provided that they and the organization learn from those failures and do not repeat them? The personal aspects relate to how the employees of an organization interact with one another, how they learn from each other and how they feel about their executive. Procedural aspects include the job structures used by the organization, the pay scales, the assignment of bonuses or rewards, and the review process followed. In who’s hands is the employee’s career progression? Who owns the organizational decisions that control the employee’s future? The procedural aspects most certainly impact the culture within a team and how employees behave in response to it. Change in this area is well worth pursuing, but it can be slow to effect as these procedures are embedded within the core of the organization and need time, thoughtfulness, planning and the engagement of the entire organization to change. This paper focuses on the environmental and personal aspects, upon which an executive can begin to act immediately and independently.

This paper is not a discussion of the traps that cause executives to make poor decisions such as anchoring, framing, the sunk cost effect, etc. Instead it is focused on a specific cause and effect relationship, namely that executives are forced to make bad decisions because they do not have all of the information because their employees misrepresent or withhold information out of fear. Employees can consciously or unconsciously perform this buffering of information. Consciously refers to the instances where the employee knowingly and deliberately avoids sharing all of the information with the executive. Unconsciously refers to those instances where the employee is not even aware that they are skewing or biasing information, such as when they are optimistic or hopeful that a late project will get back on track and use positive terminology and phrasing when describing the project status and obstacles encountered, inadvertently downplaying the severity of the situation, not expressing a sense of urgency and not drawing the executive’s attention to it. Fear drives employees to withhold or misrepresent information in this way. Some of the most significant fears impacting employees include:

  • Fear of career impact
  • Fear of discord
  • Fear of overstepping
  • Fear of failure
  • Fear of the executive

This paper will delve into these fears, and what steps an executive can take to alleviate them, enabling the free flow of information required to make good decisions. This shift is required to allow executives to identify those projects that should not receive further investment to avoid wasting resources.

[1] Krigsman (2012), Worldwide cost of IT failure (revisited): $3 trillion, ZD Net
[2] Hardy-Vallee (2012) The Cost of Bad Project Management, Gallup Business Journal


Coming up next week: Assess – Where we are now

  1. […] Part 1: Summary & Assertion, Background & Context Part 2: Assess – Where we are now […]



  2. […] Part 1: Summary & Assertion, Background & Context […]



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