How to Drive Fear and Inaction Out of Organizations

One of the main reasons that the authors Jeffrey Pfeffer and Robert Sutton give for inaction in the face of knowledge in their highly useful book The Knowing-Doing Gap is fear. They cite a statistic that one in six people have held back an improvement suggestion in the workplace for fear that it would lead to job losses for themselves or for colleagues. The fear of making mistakes feeds a cycle of not learning, not knowing and not doing. This sets organizations back and gap between the doers and non-doers ever widens. In one of their chapters Pfeffer and Sutton offer a summary titled How to drive fear and inaction out of organizations:

• Praise, pay, and promote people who deliver bad news to their bosses.
• Treat failure to act as the only true failure; punish inaction, not unsuccessful actions.
• Encourage leaders to talk about their failures, especially what they have learned from them.
• Encourage open communication.
• Give people second chances (and third) chances.
• Banish people – especially leaders – who humiliate others.
• Learn from, and even celebrate, mistakes, particularly trying something new.
• Don’t punish people for trying new things.

These are a series of dos and don’ts, some more advisable than others. Let’s go through these coincidentally 8 points and tidy them up a bit, see how they fit or conflict with lean management principles.

Require people to bring bad news. This is highly consistent with the lean principle of “make problems visible”. Everyone is encouraged to pull the andon cord, literally or figuratively, and call for help when a problem, abnormality or other qualifying deviation is noticed. Rather than “praise, pay and promote” we need to start by making it an expectation, a job requirement. Rewarding people to do so may promote this behavior in the short term but as motivators go the intrinsic ones trump the extrinsic ones over time so leading this behavior by example is the best way to put it into practice.

Punish inaction rather than failed action. Wouldn’t punishment promote fear? I can’t support the wording of this second point. Point seven covers the idea that mistakes are OK. While a “bias for action” is again highly consistent with a lean culture, it’s best not to adopt the tone of this second point.

Talk about failures and what was learned. In lean parlance we call this hansei which is a Japanese word meaning “reflection”. Leaders and teams openly talk about failure and what can be learned and done better in the future.

Encourage open communication. More than just encouraging, actively finding out reasons why open communication does not happen will often result in identifying the root causes of the fears, a good way to “bring bad news” to the surface.

Give people second and third chances. If this even needs to be said, that implies the organization gives people only one chance, and we are a long, long way from a lean culture. If people don’t have multiple chances, how will they ever learn? We can only learn from the mistakes of others, with others learning from the failures that result in the one mistake that we are allowed… This point should go without saying.

Banish people… Wait. As a guiding principle how is this not fear-generating? How about “Develop a culture based on respect for individuals?” Instead of policing those who use humiliation, just encourage respect. It’s a lot easier to say “do this” and lead by example than to make a list that says “don’t do this” and then go after people who step over the line (after their first or second chance?). By bringing the problem of disrespectful speaking into the open, practicing open communication and coaching on the subject, most people who need banishing will either quickly change their behavior or self-select to leave the organization.

Learn from mistakes. It’s the lean way. It’s the only way.

Encourage experimentation. Again, as a fear-driving-out principle let’s not talk about punishment but rather direct people’s attention towards things they can positively do. Hypothesis testing, learning by doing and the small daily improvements made by people within an organization that has a kaizen culture all work to keep the fear out.

In summary, we can drive out fear by establishing systems that support and by requiring people to expose rather than hide problems, experiment with new and better ways, and learn from mistakes through open communication. In other words andon, kaizen and hansei.

Dr. Deming said in his 8th of 14 points to “drive out fear throughout the organization so that everybody may work effectively and more productively for the company”. He also observed that the economic loss due to fear was “appalling”. When a large number of people stopped flying after the 9-11-2001 event out of fear, the economic losses were appalling. It takes leaders who can replace fear-based discussion with a discussions based on exposing problems and encouragement to do something about our problems, with the full understanding and acceptance that failure is part of learning and progress.

4 Comments

  1. Phyl Stone

    November 18, 2010 - 7:02 am

    Jon, I agree with your assessment that some of the original advice is not behaviourally sound. In particular I would be concerned that if you “praise, pay and promote” people who deliver bad news, that they might be tempted to create bad news to deliver!

  2. Jason Yip

    November 20, 2010 - 4:27 am

    Re: Banish people – especially leaders – who humiliate others
    I see this a a precursor to the No Asshole Rule. Generally, I agree about developing a culture based on respect. However, I’m thinking that other people in the organisation should not have to deal with the humiliation while the person learns, maybe slowly, to change his/her behaviour, especially if it’s a leader.

  3. Karl Arps

    November 22, 2010 - 7:13 am

    Rather than the phrase “punish inaction rather than failed action”, I would prefer “Do not punish failed action – encourage action.”

  4. John Santomer

    November 22, 2010 - 7:46 am

    Dear Jon,
    We often discuss that kaizen should be focused on the processes involved and not on the people. Once this focus has been implemented it will be easier to realize where other areas have failed and where the process has left the improvement initiative short on sustainability. A person, whether a leader or a staff should learn to accept the facts of the “hansei” and where further “kaizen” is required. Numerous chances extended to a person warrants a valid change in approach/behaviour. The chances extended to the person is solid proof of respect for the individual. A reminder should be in order if the records show that the results have also levelled up. Perhaps this will serve as a wake up call – also avoiding the humiliation to the person concerned.