THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS (REVISITED)
As a manager, do you build fear and defensive routines, or do you build trust and confidence?
Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano said, “Fear threatens: if you love you will have AIDS, if you smoke you will have cancer, if you breathe you will be polluted, if you drink you will have accidents. If you eat you will have cholesterol. If you speak you will be unemployed, if you march you will have violence, if you think you will have anguish, if you doubt you will have madness, if you feel you will have solitude.” Eduardo Galeano, Living without Fear (Vivir Sin Miedo)
A key task of leadership is to help make the workplace a safe place. My focus here is on emotional safety - in interpersonal settings (engagement rather than bullying, manipulation or personal agendas), in teams (feeling safe to raise issues, express feelings, ask for support), and in the company culture (being confident in escalating concerns rather than burying them, or challenging prevailing norms). Feeling safe is a precondition for openness and honesty, for being able to make mistakes and learn from them, for problem-solving and creativity, and for people to bring out their best.
Organisations can easily harbour fears and anxieties. Employees want to be seen as competent and co-operative, though we know that judgements made of us are always subjective and out of our control. We can fear being 'on the outer', being judged or criticised, or made to feel stupid or marginalised.
In organisations, bullying trades in fear and exists in a lack of leadership. Most people quickly sense its threatening presence, attached to positional power, and learn whether the organisational culture supports it and under which conditions. At times, the corporate world encourages bullying by turning a blind eye, discounting reports and protecting bullies, finding new positions for them, and threatening whistleblowers. Studies suggest that many employees believe that they need to stay quiet in order to keep their jobs. Between 2010 and 2016, studies showed that about 70% of Australia’s workforce say they have been bullied at work, 9.4-9.7% have been bullied in the previous 6 months, and bullying rates in Australia are significantly higher than international rates. It's cost has been estimated at about $8 billion.
Threats are often implied or conveyed through non-verbals (‘body language’).
In one government agency, the CEO became quickly known to his managers for his practice of meeting them in his office while seated with his feet on his otherwise empty desk. He augmented the message by appointing a known bully as his deputy. Within a month, staff were 'hunkered down' in fear.
A tried and true way to control any human system is to behave unpredictably - in essence, to allow yourself a bigger range of responses than those usually accepted in that system ... a dynamic which W Ross Ashby called 'The Law of Requisite Variety'.
In a large company, the CEO had built a reputation over many years for strange and apparently impulsive decisions. An instance related to the CEO's arrival at work one day, when he stepped into the lift in head office, joining several of the staff. He greeted them all, who respectfully replied. Then he spotted one middle manager he knew, and said, "Tom, what are you doing here? I thought you'd left us!" On arriving at his office, he summoned Tom's manager, and expressed his surprise: "I thought we'd got rid of him!" Tom's manager returned to his area, and within a day, Tom had been retrenched. So went the story. Was it true? People weren't quite sure. From the perspective of organisational dynamics, it doesn't matter, of course.
Leadership creates a very different and positive dynamic – by building self-awareness, confidence and robustness, it does away with the drivers for dysfunctional executive behaviour; by building people skills and open dynamics including feedback, it actions a shared respect.
People want to belong, and would prefer to be accepted without denying key elements of themselves. We make mistakes, but need to be encouraged to learn from them rather than be ridiculed or penalised. People who care about their work are concerned about events which could lead to significant problems or flow-on effects; they need to know that they can table their concerns any time and that their concerns will be welcomed and explored.
In contrast, managers' actions too often amplify their staff's fears; some managers do so knowingly, presumably as part of a 'command and control' approach, or even for personal gratification. When such behaviour becomes regular practice, employees protect themselves and their colleagues as best they can.
In one large company, the chairman often made a point of 'disciplining' staff. One day he paid a visit to a large new facility, so the staff made sure it looked its best, and they proudly showed him around. But he was on a mission. He found a small amount of dust in a corner and, in front of all the staff, called the cleaner out and dressed him down publicly. The cleaner was humiliated. What the chairman never knew was that subsequently, whenever he visited that facility, the managers organised at significant expense, for the whole place to be professionally cleaned before his visit.
In large multi-layered companies, as staff seek to maintain a positive relationship with their boss (keep them happy), there is a common dynamic where, the higher managers go in the hierarchy, the more likely it is that the system will feed them selective information or disinformation. The primary motive for this behaviour by 'lower' ranks is probably personal safety rather than deception.
An important leadership skill for senior managers is to know how to actively counter this dynamic by creating safety in honest working relationships and teams. This requires skill and constant effort, and senior managers accepting that they are participants in the system, not detached observers of it, as management education has usually taught them.
In one large company, the CEO suspected that he was not being given the whole truth by his reports. He constantly badgered them to tell him 'why you're lying to me', and to give him the real facts. His intuition turned out to be right – some of the top team were in fact concealing some big news from him, and the more he persisted, the less safe they felt to be really open. Subsequently, it emerged that that a cost overrun of over $1 billion was being concealed. The CEO's behaviour illustrated that he failed to realise that, as a high level participant in the system, his own actions were pivotal in creating the active conditions for disinformation. He was unwittingly playing a key role in maintaining a dysfunctional human system.
'Command and control' is usually a sub-optimal approach, except perhaps during emergencies and times of crisis. A company of 100 staff will benefit from leadership which enables the human system, just as will a company of 40,000. 'Command and control' encourages fear, and so leads to organisational defence mechanisms such as protecting territory and resources, retaining information rather than sharing it, limiting perspectives, keeping a low profile, and internal competition, along with self-protective, jargonistic language. Managers will seldom own up to fears or anxieties, preferring instead to say that they are 'apprehensive'.
At a large industrial site, there were ten major plants. The general manager had long directed that there be a weekly meeting of all plant managers who would each present their OH&S reports. The meeting usually took two hours, and significant preparation time for each manager. It had become an empty ritual, where the managers attended but tuned out. Privately, they were highly critical and resentful, and they shared their views with each other, but not with the GM. One day, Ali had had enough. "Let's be honest," he said, "This meeting is bs, and we all know it." The other managers all stopped breathing and looked away. The meeting continued as if nothing had been said. Two days later, Ali was summoned to the GM's office. The GM said, "I've checked with all the other plant managers ... and although I don't like the way you said it ... it seems you were right." The group designed a much more economical and useful process for promoting safety on the job.
Some writers have suggested that in the current unpredictable context of short-term measures and accountabilities, many CEO's in Australia operate in constant fear of being 'found out' for not really knowing how to respond - instead, they often hold tightly to the approaches they've learned over time or in business courses, which were designed to enhance control in a different era - approaches such as restructuring, selling off under-performing assets, outsourcing, cost-cutting, reducing staff, holding down salaries, increasing measurements, or delaying expenditure.
In real life, of course, there are risks in giving leadership, and letting go of the illusion of control through measurement, systems and processes; instead, engaging directly in the human system, in relationships, in creating safety and trust - which can only be generated through connection and invitation, never by decree.
In fact, as Paul Watzlawick and the Palo Alto Institute pointed out, the only way any of us can encourage the growth of trust is to act as if we already have it. Trust and emotional safety are self-fulfilling dynamics - once we have some, it will in turn create the enabling conditions for more, and so on. To behave as if there is trust involves taking a risk - someone has to start the 'snowball', and that is a key task of leadership. Obviously the organisational context is crucial - a reasonable risk in one context would be 'suicidal' in another.
On a large rail construction project, there was the potential for serious safety issues, not only from the usual construction work and machinery, but in this instance, the new tracks and electrification were being built in an existing corridor where commuter trains continued to run, metres away. Management had made it clear that any worker had the power to throw the switch on the rail services if they saw a potentially hazardous situation. Everyone also knew that there would be large financial penalties levied for the disruption to services. Traditionally in that company, workers distrusted such management assurances. One day, a worker saw a potentially dangerous situation and pulled the switch. Everyone waited to see what happened next. The project director and safety manager immediately began a series of conversations onsite, to draw out the perceptions and concerns of everyone in the area at the time - as an exploration, not a 'witchhunt'. The players were commended for their courage and initiative, and were encouraged to tell their story across the project. But there was more. Some workers still expressed scepticism about management assurances. So the project director, against the advice of head office, sent an individualised, personally signed letter to each of 400 workers, guaranteeing that he would back them if they ever felt the need to pull the switch to maintain safety. This project was not only delivered ahead of time and under budget, but had the best safety statistics the company has seen.
Leadership is about creating enabling interpersonal dynamics where fear does not need to exist. The benefits are openness and honesty, shared information, inventiveness, shared responsibility, and everyone's best contributions. This requires hard work and constant attention, because human beings and their systems are constantly in flux - they are, in fact, examples of complex systems, uncontrollable and on the edge of chaos. We might wish for them to be orderly, predictable and tidy, just as we might hope that, when we have resolved an 'issue' in the team, that will be the end of it; but just as we get comfortable today, we find that tomorrow, there are more issues to deal with, sometimes the same ones.
In an important study, Karl Weick and Kathleen Sutcliffe identified the five most important things which enable high reliability organisations, such as aircraft carriers. The number one factor was labelled 'pre-occupation with failure', characterised by staff tabling any concerns or issues in their teams as soon as they arose, nomatter how trivial they might have appeared; the other team members welcomed the concerns and encouraged each other to keep up this practice; they took them seriously and explored them. This can only happen in a safe and trusting climate.
To do away with fear, we have to learn to welcome the chaos of life and the opportunity to engage with it (at least it's a sign that you're alive!). These dynamics apply at all system levels at work - within ourselves, between us and other individuals, in our teams, and across our company or division. At the individual level, it's about whether we are self-aware and able to maintain our own equilibrium. At an organisational level, it's about maintaining enabling cultural patterns, and knowing how to participate with positive effect.
W Ross Ashby, Requisite Variety and Its Implications for the Control of Complex Systems
Robert B Dilts, The Law of Requisite Variety
Toni Mellington, in psychology.org.au/publications/inpsych/workplace_bullying
Occupational Health News, 5.2.2013
Safe Work Australia: safeworkaustralia.gov.au
Paul Watzlawick, How Real is Real?
K Weick & K Sutcliffe, Managing the Unexpected: Assuring High Performance in an Age of Complexity