The call was from one of the “Reluctant CEO’s” trusted lieutenants who had been asked by his boss to contact me.
“I don’t get it, Dan,” he said. “Our CEO is a great guy. I know dozens of people here who would walk on hot coals for him. Sure, he can be loud and demanding. But we haven’t laid anyone off. He hasn’t fired anyone. There is no logical reason for people to be scared.”
In recent weeks, I had been to this company’s headquarters three times. I had presented their employee engagement survey results, argued with the CEO over the interpretation of the results and spent a day onsite, mostly observing what happened in meetings.
Statistics demonstrate the benefits of an engaged and fearless workforce
Along the way, I walked him through his company’s organizational health data, question by question, comment by comment. I showed him the statistics that clearly demonstrate the benefits of an engaged and fearless workforce:
- Efficient execution of strategy
- Improved margins
- Increased efficiencies
- Greater talent retention
- Better returns
How fear impacts organizational performance
Finally, I gave him a focus: His company was missing its numbers because the only fuel in the engine was fear. He was, however, incredulous that anyone would be scared of him or anyone on his team.
This was a fear whose origin pre-dated his tenure. It was created in the dark places where leaders say one thing yet do another—and where questions left unanswered become false legends. Conflicts remained unresolved and the sound of important issues being kicked down the road echoed among unkept promises.
The company’s employees were working behind a force field of tediousness that repelled the CEO’s best intentions while letting apathy take root and grow.
The CEO’s response so far had come right from the latest business books: Be very explicit about expectations and be as transparent as possible about performance and consequences. Then repeat the message often.
Nothing had changed and the board of directors was running out of patience, which made everyone around the CEO, including this lieutenant… afraid.
“This reminds me of a Shaker proverb,” I told the lieutenant.
“OK, what do they have to do with our company?”
I told him they had a philosophy: You don’t reason people out of what they did not reason themselves into.
“Are the people you hired reasonable, rational, capable people?” I asked.
“And you’ve just told me you see no logical reason for people to be scared. So if there isn’t a logical reason and they are still scared, what should you conclude?”
Eliminating fear in the workplace
I let the silence linger, then answered the question for him, “This is an emotional decision and the only way to change someone’s emotional decision is to have them experience something different.”
“Like what?” he asked.
“Like coming to work expecting to succeed or not expecting to be lectured. Like actually expecting to have their input taken seriously. Like being held responsible and seeing others being held responsible. What are you most afraid of?”
“Not having any control,” he replied.
“What would it feel like to come to work and know you had control over the things that mattered most to you being successful?” I could sense his sudden change of attitude.
“Dan, I have an idea. Let me call you back…”