Rejecting the Architects of Fear
Posted by Mark Bennett on August 29, 2008
In “The Architects of Fear” episode of the original “Outer Limits,” a group of misguided international scientists believe that the only way to get the hostile nations of the world to set aside their differences would be to force them to join together to fight an outside enemy and bind them in fear of some unknown power. They create a hideous (of course) man-made monster out of one of their own number since he can be controlled (or so they think). This not only adds pathos to the episode as this scientist sacrifices his life, but it is made even more poignant as the whole effort fails since he ultimately cannot deny his humanity when his wife (who did not know of the scheme) encounters him after he has been shot and lay dying. He reaches out to her, she recognizes who he really is, and the whole sham is exposed. The lesson learned is that trying to solve problems with ”scarecrows and magic and other fatal fears” isn’t the right approach as it doesn’t really bring people closer together. The hope in the final scene is that it’s the “soft caring and hard work”, “self-respect, and mutual love” that will redeem humanity.
Where We Last Left Off
Previously, we went over how fear, or more accurately, a culture of fear, destroys the growth mindset that promotes execution-as-learning. As a result, a company’s ability to grow and adapt to meet changing market conditions suffers and it is more likely to fall to those forces. In a culture of fear, a company is more apt to adopt a fixed mindset and focus on execution-as-efficiency, which can very well result in short term benefits from efficiencies, but ends up crippling the company in the long haul.
What About Accountability?
Is execution-as-learning a viable approach? The objection often raised is that by allowing for performance to sometimes miss the target, it deemphasizes accountability. Amy Edmondson’s article, “The Competitive Imperative of Learning” points out that companies should be “setting high performance aspirations while acknowledging areas of uncertainty that require continued exploration or debate.” This encourages striving for results, which is really what we’re after, but without eliminating the ability to experiment and improve the system.
A terrific book, “The Knowing-Doing Gap” by Jeffrey Pfeffer and Robert Sutton, describes how companies often confuse accountability with blame. In other words, in an effort to correct a problem, more effort is expended on finding out “who blew it” rather than coming up with a way to prevent it from happening again. Coming up with a way to prevent it from happening again is more focused on improving the system or process (i.e. a growth mindset, execution-as-learning behavior) while finding who to blame assumes the system or process is already correct (a fixed mindset, execution-as-efficiency behavior) and it’s only necessary to dole out corrective action. Is it any wonder that in a culture of blame, most energy is spent in self-protection and pointing fingers instead of open communication and objective inquiry? If you don’t have the time to read “The Knowing-Doing Gap”, there is an excellent summary in a Fast Company article, “Why Can’t We Get Anything Done?”
We can also see how fear and fixed mindset thinking actually undermines accountability by looking at Patrick Lencioni’s framework described in “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team.” Briefly put, his framework is based on the notion that for a team (executive or otherwise) to generate *real* results, there must be accountability. However, to get accountability, there must be commitment. To get commitment, the team must work through conflict (of ideas, direction, priorities, etc.), and *productive* conflict requires trust, which cannot exist in a culture of fear. So, to rewind: true accountability, the kind that generates genuinely beneficial results, only happens when the culture of fear has been replaced by a culture of trust.
False performance and the illusion of accountability that goes with them are the bane of companies – where everybody is “getting their job done” or “making their numbers”, but the company is either diving straight into the ground (“Pull up! Pull up!” – “I am, you idiot!” – “Well then, pull up harder!”) or gradually sinking under the waves (“Everything is going well. Please make sure the deck chairs are properly arranged as per company best practice TSP 32-A577/4 Rev. C. Thank you for your cooperation.”)
What’s the Prescription?
Edmondson’s article has several tangible recommendations to counter the effects of fear and the fixed mindset and instead increase your long term success through execution-as-learning:
Start with the same first step as execution-as-efficiency: establish standard processes. The goal of these processes however is different; it is to facilitate learning, not just produce efficiency.
Provide tools that support people collaborating to solve problems and make decisions in the midst of unforeseen, new, and complex problems and uncertainty.
Collect data about *how* work is done, not just the performance data itself. Results are important of course, but knowing how they were achieved (or not) is how you improve and therefore are able to compete.
With that data in hand, along with the results data, reflect as an entire organization on how things could be better. Do this in a disciplined, but open manner that is not focused on blame.
Of course, even when you have a culture of trust, fear lurks behind every negative event. Any time things go south, it’s easy to fall into a mode of fear and blame-finding and then fear takes control again. Instead, the challenge must be viewed again as an opportunity for continued growth, the fear must be faced, and trust in ourselves and each other reaffirmed. Like the man said, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”