Trust Fear and Options

I often get inspired to write based on conversations with other people about what they are seeing or experiencing.  This is one of those times.

I recently had a conversation with a good friend where he talked about ‘Trust’ being the big buzzword where he works.  He was talking about trust in the sense of management starting a slogan campaign saying that ‘we all need to trust each other to be great’.  I asked his thoughts and he told me that the only thing that he trusted was that if he made a mistake he trusted that he would get yelled at for it.  Almost as an aside he also said they were starting to talk about implementing Lean.  I guess I should be excited that another company is “going” Lean, but this seems doomed from the start.

I’m always struck by how prevalent the culture of management by fear really is.  It strikes me because it almost always comes from one root cause high enough in the culture who treats people like crap and this behavior gets emulated by others in the organization.  The weirder part is that the behavior is usually poorly copied by people who fall in to sort of a groupthink of treating people like disposable widgets and reinforcing a culture that very, very few people would ever say they want.

Why do I think this is even remotely relevant?  Mainly because it seems to me like the root cause of a tragedy of inefficiency.  These cultures have a tendency to becoming self-sustaining because those that remain to be promoted either have the same inclination to disrespect others or give up their opposition in order to fit in.  Those that can’t go along end up leaving for a better fit.  These companies run off some potentially fantastic talent because they aren’t aware of the need to change.

What I told my friend is that he has 3 choices:  he can spend the rest of his time there waiting for things to change, he can let the culture kill his natural temperament, or he can leave.  I realize that not every culture is a fit for every person, but these shouldn’t be the main options.  Maybe that’s the ongoing incentive to companies who have a strong culture of people being treated well.  They will attract the best talent who value that type of behavior.  The rich will get richer and the rude get ruder.

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Posted on March 16, 2012, in Communication, Culture, Leadership, People. Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Matt,

    You have said a lot in this post. A culture of fear obviously does not include “Respect for People” as a part of how they operate.

    On the other hand, sometimes the culture of fear is self-imposed by the employees themselves. Where I work, discipline is not the first step when a mistake is made. There is a meeting to try to find out what happened in order to try to countermeasure the problem. Even though no one can point to an instance when someone was fired because they made a mistake or bad judgement call, it seems that everyone still tries to cover up issues out of fear. Some associates realize this and try to point that out to their fellow associates, but it seems to fall on deaf ears. When I have asked if they can give me an example of when someone was fired because of quality or delivery issues, they are stumped to come up with anyone. In fact, when they do mention a name, the associates are often the ones who state that the person should have been fired sooner because of all their mistakes.

    So how do you overcome a self-imposed fear?

  2. I can totally sympathize with the culture of fear. The group that I was part of that most resembled what you are describing was mostly due to a history of inconsistent discipline. By that I mean that the procedures for disciplining weren’t followed the way they were written, so when discipline was given out (deserved or not, like you described), it seemed arbitrary. It wasn’t even a recent history, but it hung around with the long timers and spread.

    Maybe you can find ways to celebrate mistakes? Talk about the errors that have come up and what has been done to prevent them. If you can have a few associates that would be willing to talk about what happened and how they are preventing it, maybe you can take the stigma out of it?

    On top of it being a ‘respect for people’ issue, it seems reflective of another core Lean principle that ” “no problem” is a problem”.

    Thanks for the reply

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