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.
Strategize – Where Do We Need To Be
Review the results of the survey, including any free-form commentary provided by employees along with the information gathered in the observation and interview activities. Represent the results on the following model and interpret them to form a hypothesis on which fears are driving employees to buffer information, and the set of remediation steps that can be undertaken to assuage those fears.
The model consists of two axes, Individual-Many and Internal-External, which intersect to divide the model into four quadrants:
- Individual Internal – the inside thoughts and feelings of an individual
- Individual External – how an individual vocalizes their thoughts and feelings to another person
- Many Internal – a group or team of individuals talking amongst themselves, the shared thoughts and feelings of the group
- Many External – how a group or team of individuals vocalizes their thoughts and feelings to others, such as their executive
The model has concentric areas which represent the reduction of fear experienced by employees as they move closer to the center into a less fearful environment.
Fear of Career Impact
The Individual Internal quadrant depicts an individual’s internal thoughts and feelings. Their expectations, beliefs and insecurities all play a role in the perception they hold of the outcomes that would result from their verbalizing or acting upon that which they think and feel.
Employees may fear the negative or punitive consequences that would result should they vociferate or act on their thoughts. These employees fear that they will lose their job if they speak their mind or tell the whole, unvarnished truth. They want to avoid being shot as the proverbial messenger that brings bad news. Just as powerful is the concern over losing the status and position that they currently hold. Moving them to a smaller office or desk, demoting them in the hierarchy, reassigning their project to someone else, or moving them to a smaller, less critical or less important assignment are all perceived as punitive and attempts to “manage them out” of the organization. The stigma of associated with failure could be enough to cause the employee to be labelled as a problem person and result in them being passed over when a new, challenging project is launched. These employees believe that such punishments can be avoided by not taking risks and keeping their thoughts and feelings to themselves, so they withhold or misrepresent the severity of the current situation to buy time to rectify it, hope that it improves, or simply to delay their fears from being realized.
The better adjusted, more mature and risk tolerant individuals are likely to feel little to no fear of impact or damage to their job, status or career prospects. They are comfortable operating in what they see as a risk tolerant environment where mistakes are accepted provided that lessons are learned. These individuals are comfortable taking some level of risk. They are brave enough to try something to see how it will work out, secure in their belief that if things go awry, their career and status will not suffer damage. Note that the scenario of an employee naively taking action because they are unaware that it would indeed lead to irreparable career damage is not covered by this model because healthy teams do not punish employees for taking reasonable risks to test an idea and failing fast. Instead they applaud the bravery and good intention behind the action and help the employee to understand and share the lessons learned from that failure.
The executive should be deliberate about openly discussing examples of risk taking and failures with employees, highlighting what was learned the failure and that the employee was not punished as a result. It is important to note that asking an executive to embrace failure is not a suggestion that they should reward, applaud or celebrate it. Instead, it asks that executives should give credit to the individual for having an idea, for testing it, for being courageous enough to identify that it would not work, for ceasing to pursue a failed idea and for discussing and sharing the lessons learned along the way so that others can benefit from their experience and not repeat similar mistakes. Executives embrace failure by celebrating the ideas, experimentation, failing fast and learning lessons that simultaneously empower employees to be creative while minimizing waste of resources. They should compliment and recognize team members who take smart risks and learn from them.
Practicing awareness will move employees away from fear towards risk tolerance. For them, seeing is believing. They need to see others speaking their mind and sharing the whole true status of the current project situation and see that rather than being punished, those people grow and receive positive results such as recognition for taking a risk and acknowledgement of their courage. Employees exposed to repeated examples of punitive consequences not being realized can use this as the basis upon which to develop a new expectation, changing their perspective. To see that their fears will not be realized, employees must be self-aware and attuned to pick up on the examples being given. Awareness gives individuals the ability and courage to get out of their own head and to look outwards, even when afraid.
Fear of Discord
The Individual External quadrant reflects the one-on-one interactions between an individual and another person on the project team, or with the executive directly. Engaging openly in high stakes, emotional and controversial topics, and managing those conversations well, forms the bedrock of all healthy relationships, teams and organizations.
Employees can be reluctant to engage in difficult conversations because they do not enjoy them, or the discomfort that can result from interpersonal disagreement. They do not like to rock the boat, or to criticize others. Instead of openly discussing a concern, they suppress their frustration. The pressure builds and builds, which can lead to it being vented in indirect, unproductive ways, such as via occasional sarcastic remarks or eye rolls. The recipient of these behaviors does not understand, and can be hurt or wounded by it. This in turn impacts how they interact with each other, leading to an uncomfortable environment that distracts the entire team.
Conversely, employees that manage difficult conversations well constructively process issues by being self-disciplined enough to tackle the conflict head on, and in near-real time, rather than letting it fester. These individuals realize that addressing the concern immediately and directly is necessary to build and strengthen both relationships and teams. These employees process issues in a constructive way that benefits themselves and others.
Some executives equate debate to how deeply the individuals on the team care about the success of the project. It is important for the executive to recognize that a lack of disagreement and debate amongst the team could stem from a fear of discord, and does not necessarily point to a lack of caring. To enable employees to arrive at the realization that constructively processing issues leads to a healthier team and a successful project, the executive should provide the coaching, education, training and growth opportunities required to equip employees with the skills and tools that they need in order to help them to not shy away from interpersonal conflict but to engage with others directly. This will build their confidence and help them to overcome this fear.
Constructive issues processing is reached when employees realize the value of constructive conflict. To overcome their fear, employees must realize that constructive conflict is necessary, that it builds and strengthens relationships and that it drives to the best results for the team. Learning to value constructive disagreement as the glue that strengthens relationships is the tenet that will enable employees to apply their self-discipline to engage in difficult conversations and constructively process issues.
Coming up next week: Fear of Overstepping, Fear of Failure, Fear of the Executive