Wednesday, January 2, 2013

First, Drive out the Fear. What Leaders Do to Create a High Performing Workplace

As part of a recent consulting engagement the issue of fear in the workplace came up.  It manifests itself in several ways.  At one level is individual fear.  When bad news is not welcome; staff feel they may get fired if they bring it forward.  Expatriate staff in an international workforce, in particular, have a lot at stake...paid boarding school for children, generous financial packages, trips home, tax advantages in the home country.  At another level is organizational fear...a lack of "organizational justice", a "blame" culture, tension between line and supporting staff functions, organizational "silos" that optimize their part of the organization at the expense of the enterprise.

This, unfortunately, isn't uncommon.  When I heard of this I was reminded of some of the early quality work done by management expert W. Edwards Deming who, along with Joe Juran helped transform the Japanese manufacturing industry in the 1950's and 1960's. Their success spawned the Total Quality Management(TQM) movement in the USA. Since then, TQM has morphed into Six Sigma and the LEAN production methodology and their derivatives. It's important to note that all the current derivatives have their roots in Deming and Juran's work. One of Deming's 14 points for effective management was to "Drive out the Fear".

I intend to spend a couple of days on this subject but for openers want to reiterate my first leadership insight which is  "Bad news isn't like fine wine.  It doesn't get better with time".  Here's an excerpt of my 7 May blog on the subject.  In this blog, I focus on the leader's dual roles both to bring forward bad news and create an environment where others can do so:

"Bad news isn't like fine doesn't get better with time. In order for others to to understand this I need to share some fundamental beliefs. One is that bad things happen in even the best organization. People make dumb mistakes, have lapses in judgment, take unnecessary risks, violate established procedures resulting in a bad could make a very long list of the kinds of bad things that can happen. A well led organization isn't defined by whether or not bad things happen, but how leaders handle the bad things that do. The second point is that there is a natural human tendency to not want to reveal bad things that happen in an organization. A leader may hope the problem goes away without anyone discovering it; she may hope it's not as bad as it first looks; she may be worried that it reflects on her leadership; she may be embarrassed that an egregious mistake has happened in her organization. There are a lot of reasons leader may be reluctant to bring forward bad news, and it's always a mistake not to do so. Bad news doesn't go away, and it's always at least as bad as it first appears. The effective leader will bring bad news forward with the best information available at the time. commit to further investigate, and identify corrective action to prevent recurrence of the event.

Just as important is the environment the leader establishes to allow her direct reports to bring forward bad news. How the leader reacts to bad news is important to creating trust and transparency. If she encourages bad news to be brought forward and then reacts angrily or questions how the subordinate leader could have let this happen.....well, the chances of a subordinate leader willingly bringing forward bad news just went down considerably....and the chances it will be worse when it does come out just went up. No matter what my emotional reaction to a particular bad news event may have been, I always felt it important to handle it as a learning and development opportunity for the organization.

More in the next few days on what leaders do to create a high trust, high performing environment.


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