There’s Fear in the Air

“Drive out fear, so that everyone may work effectively for the company”

– W. Edwards Deming

Change is hard enough without fear in the air. What do we fear? I’ve experienced 3 recent cases that remind me of how stifling and destructive fear in an organization can be.

  1. Fear for one’s job.  Of being declared obsolete or surplus as a result of the very changes you’re championing. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs kicks in. You’re advocating change but all I see is elimination of my job and livelihood. In this case, it boiled down to a dearth of communication.
  2. Fear of rocking the boat. Of challenging the status quo. Of being different. In this case, a Scrum Master wanted to veer from the golden standard imposed upon all teams for how they would operate. A standard is good for learning but not for excelling. It’s a starting point not an end point. It is said that Taiichi Ohno, the father of the Toyota Production System (TPS) refused to write down the details of TPS. He believed that by doing so would’ve codified it and ceased any further improvement.
  3. Fear of transparency. Of appearing worse than others. Of being embarrassed or ashamed. In this case, a team was reluctant to welcome visitors to their Scrum events. They didn’t feel they were ready, good enough or had anything of value to share.

What fuels fear? A failure to communicate? Outdated assumptions and rules? A need to be seen in a certain way? There is fear that comes right at you in plain sight. A direct order or a verbal reprimand. You and everyone else sees it. The hair on the back of your neck stands up. You swallow. Your teeth and fists clench. It’s the enemy you know.  And then there’s fear that is more insidious, hidden deep in the crevices of our organizational cultures. Veiled threats, double entendres, hushed tones. Something doesn’t feel right. You’re left wondering, doubting and unsure. Is it a knee-jerk reaction to past unresolved transgressions, slights or insecurities? No one remembers why it exists, it just does.

How will we know when fear has been driven out of the system? Here’s my list:

  • When the role of the manager has evolved from commander and controller to coach and collaborator.
  • When managers are viewed as caring sponsors as opposed to ruthless task masters.
  • When agile retrospectives are as effective with or without managers present.
  • When we freely model vulnerability not as a weakness but as a strength.
  • When time-sheets are tossed onto the scrap heap of corporate waste.
  • When the real numbers and truth come out of the woodwork.
  • When financial cost accounting is replaced by business value accounting.
  • When end-to-end communication is uncensored with no political spin applied.
  • When we all accept that “it is what it is”. It’s no one’s fault. “Now what are *we* going to do about it?”
  • When failure is not only an option but is applauded.
  • When self-policing happens not because we have to but because we want to.
  • When people stop separating their social persona and their professional persona.
  • When we’re open and honest with each other about our dreams.
  • When we respect each other as human beings first and co-workers second.
  • When my word becomes my bond.
  • When we greet each other with a smile.
  • When above all else, trust exists.

Some of this may come off sounding a little Kumbaya-ish but hey – we all have emotions so let’s start getting in touch with them. Don’t let fear hold us back. Take a deep breath, do a power pose and build the courage and curiosity to question yourself and the system.

But wait.

What if we could never drive out all fear? Should we even try? Is all fear necessarily bad? Is there a difference between “bad” fear and “good” fear?

Fear if shared across an entire organization can be a galvanizing rally cry for change. What if we were to re-frame “shared fear” as the proverbial “burning platform” or “sense of urgency”? Shared fear can pull an organization together rather than tear it apart. So, let’s endeavour to drive (bad) fear out but let’s keep some (good) fear around to drive change and improvement.

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