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.
Fear of Overstepping
The Many Internal quadrant reflects the shared thoughts and feelings of a group or team, their talking amongst themselves. Feeling empowered to take action that challenges the status quo is necessary to enable teams to drive to success.
A team that is reluctant to engage in conflict, that avoids difficult conversations, that is afraid to hurt the feelings of others, rock the boat or cause friction, is a team that fears overstepping their boundaries. They fear challenging the established politics and norms. This group may feel that they must stay “in the box”, and as such feel powerless to effect change. This builds into a feeling of frustration, helplessness and futility, and results in an inefficient and ineffective team, a group that cannot take action to better their situation.
An empowered team consists of a group of employees who are willing to challenge the status quo and question conventional wisdom. They are empowered to take action and to effect change to address challenges that arise.
To empower the team, the executive should explicitly set the expectation that the team is indeed empowered, and clearly state where the true boundaries are. Within the context of this expectation and boundary, the executive should then give the team space to make decisions and take action, to build their confidence and realization that they have the power to address the issues that threaten the success of their project.
Fear of overstepping the mark is rooted in the employees’ assumption of what the boundaries and expectations are. To empower the team and thus overcome this fear requires that the employees take action that challenges their status quo. They should reflect on what they believe the boundaries and expectations in place for their team to be, and then test to determine if they do indeed hold true. Taking action enables employees to feel that they have the power to effect change, and that their efforts will bear fruit. This in turn alleviates frustration and feelings of helplessness and futility, giving the team confidence that they are empowered to resolve problems and be successful.
Fear of Failure
The Many External quadrant reflects how the team interacts with an external party, such as with the executive. Teams operating in a failure tolerant environment are able to share unbiased information with their executive.
Similar to the negative or punitive career impacts that individual employees dread, a team of individuals may fear the negative consequences to the team that would result from a failure. The team could be disbanded, merged into another group, have the project taken away from them, or be passed over for another, interesting project. They focus on managing the message, by withholding or misrepresenting the severity of the current situation, to buy time to rectify it, hope that it improves, or simply to delay the outcome they fear.
A team operating in a failure tolerant environment is open and vulnerable. They present the whole, unvarnished truth of the status of issues. They do not invest energy in trying to downplay the severity or implications, because they are willing to share the steps that they took to try to address the concern, whether they were successful and the lessons that they learned from failing fast.
The executive should reinforce the benefits that can be obtained from failure. They should share stories of lessons learned from past failures and highlight how that benefited the organization as a whole. Emphasizing that teams were not punished for failure, but instead were applauded for being open and honest, is important to help employees realize that the punitive consequences they anticipate will not happen.
For employees to move towards operating in a safe, failure tolerant environment, they should apply awareness, realization and action in order to be open and vulnerable. Taking risks, failing fast and learning lessons will help themselves, the team and the organization to grow and succeed.
Fear of the Executive
Influencing each of the fears described in the model is fear of the executive, which can be decomposed into two parts, a fear of the power that the institution embodied by the executive can wield because they hold the individual’s career progression and future in their hands, and a fear of the person that is the executive him or herself which is exacerbated by the fact that they hold a position of power over the individual.
Employees that do not fear their executive are comfortable approaching that person, and willing to deliver bad news in a timely, unbiased manner.
Employees may fear you, their executive. You should accept your role in the culture by acknowledging that your employees are indeed afraid. Something in the way you act or speak causes fear. The greater the distance between the employee and the executive in terms of power, the more fearful the employee may be in bringing whole, unbiased information forward. Alternatively, you may be living with the ghost of a previous leader – a phenomenon of organization culture is that once established, it can outlast the leader that built it.
The executive should demonstrate transparency and openness to feedback, which shows the vulnerability required to foster trust and respect. Establish safety by showing humility. Be brave enough to engage in and address this issue head on, admitting your role in it. Realize that you do not have a monopoly on the truth, nor do you always have to win your way. Your opinions provide the starting point, not the final word for the organization. Demonstrate your willingness to express opinions while encouraging others to do the same. If the employees are operating under a fear instilled by the ghost of a previous executive, then it is important to publicly state that times have changed, demonstrate your openness and desire for honest feedback and so help people begin to perceive a change in the culture.
Executives should also be aware that the employee may indeed fear you because of the power you hold over their future and their career progression. The greater the power distance between the two of you, the more keenly this fear can be felt by the employee. Overcome this fear by reducing the power distance, such as by flattening the hierarchy, between you. Practice the age-old art of “Management By Walking Around”, meet the employee on their home turf (rather than in your office) to put them at ease, get to know them on a personal level and discuss the issues and challenges that they face. Use this direct conversation time to share praise, stories and examples of cases where individuals were recognized for taking risks and were not punished.
The executive must create the space for safety to flourish, but it is the responsibility of the employee to have the courage to step into this space and move away from their fear. To do so, they must be open to building a relationship with the executive. Leveraging their awareness, employees should pick up on signs that the executive is facilitating this change. They should realize that constructive conflict need not be avoided as it forms the bedrock of healthy relationships. They should take action to openly share and discuss information in an unbiased manner with the executive.
Coming up next week: Plan – How do we get there, Conclusion