Can We Tackle Our Culture If We Don’t Tackle Our Fears?

In 2000 I developed a genuine fear of flying. For someone who was regularly flying between Toronto, New York and Austin this wasn’t good. 

 In fact it got so debilitating that when I moved back to Toronto I elected to take a 13 hour train trip rather than endure the 70 minute flight.  

Doing my research - I had 13hrs to kill - I found out that aviophobia typically arises because your brain believes you're completely out of control of your surroundings. 

Makes sense. When you get on a plane you never see the person in control – if they’re sober, if they look competent, if they look older than 15 etc. You’re hurtling 35,000 feet above ground and over 500 miles a hour. There are miles of electrical circuits and technology that could fail spectacularly at any moment. And, if you’re in Economy, you can’t even control what they feed you during your we're-sorry-for-the-late-departure-we’ll-try-to-make-it-up flight.

Ultimately the fear comes from to trying to exert control over a litany of things you have absolutely zero control over.

And fear makes us act in all sorts of strange ways. 

And we certainly don’t behave at our best when we act out of fear either.

In the past 48 hours I’ve had two very insightful people separately ask me why organizations seem so reticent about tackling their Cultures. 

Why, in the face of mounting evidence that cogent well-functioning cultures attract and retain better talent, are more creative and adaptable and often out-perform their competition on almost every metric possible, do so few organizations seem willing to jump into this opportunity with both feet?

Could it be fear?

Spoiler alert – if you’re fearful that your Culture isn’t perfect, rest assured few are. Even amongst the most respected cultures in the world, the best would acknowledge they still have to work at their cultures each and every day. 

If you’re fearful that your leadership style has created the culture in your current team or organization, I can tell you most assuredly that it has certainly had a significant contribution.

But what other behaviours exist in your organization – inside your culture – that are driven by fear? 

A fear that is debilitating your teams, your productivity, your adaptiveness, your competitiveness?

I fear that if I share key knowledge I won’t be seen as the "indispensable" smartest person in the room. 

That fear stifles teamwork.

I fear that if I don’t tell my people exactly how to do something they’ll possibly do it differently and they might screw it up.

That fear stifles your team's growth.

 I fear that if I tell my EVP of Sales to stop bullying his EA that he’ll go work for the competition.

That fear stifles respect.

I fear that if I speak up and contradict my boss with a new idea I’ll get humiliated or shut down. Better if I just nod and go along.

That fear stifles innovation.

I fear for my job so I will do everything possible to sabotage my colleagues in other departments so I win.

That fear stifles collaboration.

I fear if I'm not sending or checking emails from my vacation I won't be seen as committed to the company.

That fear stifles recuperating and recharging.

I fear that if I push back on a colleague (or client's) unreasonable or unrealistic expectations I'll not get promoted.

That fear stifles truth and transparency.

Remember your culture is simply defined by how people behave to fit in. The deeper and more systemic these fears are, the more they are explicitly creating your culture.

They also needn't be spurring hugely weird and observable behaviour. As the examples above show, some are so small and insignificant, we can fool ourselves that they aren't taking a toll on our people and our culture.

Tackling your fears is no small undertaking. I don’t care how big your title is or how varied your credentials are, just acknowledging you’re fearful is a mammoth achievement.

After all we typically anoint leaders for their invincibility not their vulnerability.

Similarly, creating an environment where people feel they can express their fears without concern for retribution or judgement is incredibly rare. Fear is still seen as a sign of weakness, not strength. Rather show a brave face or a wall of bravado to your colleagues than acknowledge you might not have the answer or aren’t the expert everyone thinks you are. 

As Carolyn Swora eloquently references VUCA – Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity – in her great culture book “ Rules of Engagement” – we are living in fearful times. Just ask any CEO who has gotten on the wrong side of POTUS and his relentless abusive Twitter-stream.

The issue is are we prepared to at least acknowledge our fears? From the Executive suite all the way to the shop floor. From the corner office to the cubicle to the staff cafeteria?

Are we prepared to ask if the poor and unhelpful behaviours we see within our organization’s cultures aren’t based in fear? 

Importantly - are we prepared to minimize those fears as best we can before the unhelpful behaviours bring out the very worst, rather than the very best, of our colleagues and employees?  

I’m fearful for the future of many organizations if we’re not prepared to even try.

What fear is holding YOU back? How might your colleagues and team be able to reduce that fear if you were open with them? How much better might your organization be if that fear was reduced?

I’m fascinated to hear folks.