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By: Dr. Margie Warrell
The CEO of a major oil and gas company couldn’t make sense of it. His company was losing market share in a high-growth region in which he’d invested heavily. He searched for an explanation. Turned out the regional VP, who’d been charged with rolling out a major change initiative designed to give authority and resources to employees closest to the market, had done the exact opposite. Instead of making people feel empowered, he had punished candor, rewarded compliance, and insisted on signing off on every decision and communication with HQ back in the US. Control was his modus operandi.
Such stories are all too familiar.
Leaders today constantly talk about the need for employees to be more agile, take more risks, and innovate faster. “Be courageous,” they say—and for good reason. Research finds that the innovation required to remain competitive relies on the willingness of employees to challenge given assumptions, experiment with new ideas, and take smart risks. Yet far too often, instead of fostering an environment that promotes bold thinking and constructive debate, managers do the opposite. They shut down conflict (or take it offline too fast), second-guess decisions, and marginalize those who don’t fall in line behind them. In the process they ratchet up fear, drive blind compliance, and dampen the initiative that’s most needed.
Since fear is the dominant human emotion, employees will default to playing it safe unless they feel secure enough to do otherwise. When leaders give people a reason to hold back before expressing disagreement, raising issues, or challenging decisions, they shut down the very dialogue that’s required to identify and address problems and accelerate learning and adaptation. And with inflation, economic volatility, and geopolitical instability rising, reasons for feeling insecure are easily found.
“When people feel insecure about their future, they tend to get pulled into ‘fearcasting.'"
Transforming a fear-based culture of compliance begins with those in charge. Leaders must embrace the discomfort required to role-model the courageous behaviors they want to inspire. In the process, they must be continually vigilant in what they say and do, avoiding behaviors that give employees a reason to hesitate to ask questions, suggest “wild ideas,” or operate from a forward-leaning “play to win” (versus “play not to lose”) mindset.
Tom, a leader of a large division of a prominent retailer that’s forging new ground in e-commerce, shared with me how he strives to role-model trying to get it right versus being right. “Trying to find the answers to really complex problems is riddled with ambiguity,” he told me. “But unless I’m willing to dive into the messy middle—an inherently uncomfortable process—how can I expect it of anyone else?”
Equally important is normalizing candor by drawing out diverse opinions, particularly those of the less vocal, and inviting constructive conflict. It’s critical for leaders to ask themselves, “Sure, I’ve been at this awhile, but I’ll bet I haven’t thought of everything—what am I missing?” And when people dare to challenge the position of those with more authority, they should be rewarded, never humiliated. A few well-timed words of public praise send a strong signal, countering the fear that silences the diversity of voices required for high-quality decisions.
Of course, when courageous action doesn’t create the ideal outcome, leaders must embrace the maxim, “Never let a failure go to waste.” Not only should they reward behavior over outcome, but they should scale the learning across the whole enterprise. Brave leaders grow more brave leaders, and courage spreads. Likewise, leaders operating from fear drive excess risk aversion that exacts an invisible tax on a company’s business. That’s ultimately what our oil-company CEO came to realize. The regional VP was “invited” to take an early retirement. Commercial value had been lost and human potential had been squandered as people hungry to add value were left disempowered and undervalued.
Dr. Warrell is a senior client partner in Korn Ferry’s CEO Succession and Executive Development practices.