You Don’t Scare Me!! Well, Maybe a Little…

“Drive out fear, so that everyone may work effectively for the company.”  W. Edwards Deming

chucky dollI’ve long been a fan of Deming.  When working as an HR Director for a large health care organization I spent several years being fully immersed in his teachings and theories when we adopted his System of Profound Knowledge (SoPK) as the framework for transforming our multi-state organization.  I still regularly grab Out of the Crisis or The New Economics off my bookshelf for reference.  HR nerd that I am.

Among other things Deming was known for developing his “14 Points for the Transformation of Management”; some are operational while others are more philosophical in nature.  Point #8 is “drive out fear.”

Sounds pretty basic doesn’t it?  Simple even.  Yet Out of the Crisis (with the 14 points) was published in 1986 and we still suck at this; 30 years later and we continue to struggle with what is arguably one of the easiest things for us to get right.

This has been on my mind as various people have recently shared stories with me about the fear that is pervasive in their workplaces; in some cases transcending fear and landing in outright terror.  In every single scenario leaders are the ones creating this climate; their roles ranging from line supervisor (with a bit of power-tripping) to department managers to divisional VPs to CEOs.

What sorts of things are happening?

  • Managers (or HR Departments!) are issuing rules or policies, often nonsensical, with no explanation of the purpose or reason
  • Employees are being chastised, disciplined, and punished for every small misstep
  • There’s a lack of understanding, leading to people ultimately not giving a damn, as employees are reluctant to ask clarifying questions because others have been told you don’t need to know that”
  • Leaders are ‘blowing up’ in front of one employee … or in front of groups.  One leader berated a team member in a department meeting, slamming his hand on the table while punctuating his escalating tirade with curse words and then swept from the room leaving the team sitting in stunned silence.  Not the first time and, according to a witness, the standard M.O. for this leader.

One woman told me she gets physically ill every morning at the thought of walking through the doors into her office building and she’s not alone; every single day her co-workers speculate who will be the next ‘target.’ Another lady said she works for a company where “everything is swept under the rug” and no one dares to bring up problems for fear of making the boss look bad. “We just keep our heads down and try not to draw attention to what we’re doing” she told me.

A guy who is a senior leader at his organization told me “what we (as a company) say we’ll do is never what we actually do.  I’m reluctant to bring it up though because our CEO takes it personally whenever someone mentions something negative about our operating model.”

Not surprisingly several of the organizations these people work for list similar corporate values on their websites informing customers and job seekers alike that they (to paraphrase) ‘believe employees are the most important asset’ and ‘embrace open communication’ while ‘fostering a caring work environment.’

The same pablum we’ve seen before; the same type of Corporate Communication and C-Suite bullshit double talk that has no connection to the real corporate culture. 

These are workplaces where fear has been institutionalized.  Employees have been beaten into submission to the point where they’re just going through the motions and trying to stay out of the line of fire in order to keep their jobs.

Yet I’m sure that somewhere in the bowels of these corporate domiciles there are oblivious HR ladies excited about the quarterly pizza-for-lunch day, the upcoming annual diversity luncheon (set for February, of course…) and the Friday “jeans day” which HR launched to increase employee engagement !!!

To which the woman who literally vomits when she thinks of walking through the office door each morning says “$#*& @!^”

And she is scared; more than just a little.

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