What are we afraid of?
Fear is regarded by psychologists as one of the four primary emotions with sadness, anger and joy being the other three. It’s also generally regarded as a strong word if you mention it in the context of organisational culture – an emotion that many deny feeling. And yet closer examination reveals a not just the existence but the growth in some businesses of centralised control and increased restrictions on autonomy and empowerment in an era where we are seeing increasing need for agility, collaboration, local decision making, self-managing teams and the like. Excessive control is generally regarded as a symptom of fear.
So, what makes the difference as to why some businesses or industries seem to be regressing culturally whilst others are flying forward? Well for sure some of it is down to the familiar dynamics of change – the early adopters at one end and the change resistant or laggards at the other. Some organisations are culturally up for the next new thing and can’t wait to work out how to bring it alive in their arena. Others are focused on hanging on to what they’ve got.
We may be tempted to say that some of it is industry specific – those industries with high volume, operational services at their core such as transport or manufacturing for example – have an inertia built in that is hard to shift due to fixed costs, infrastructure, old technology and the like.
We may also be tempted to say it’s to do with size – the smaller the company the easier it is to implement change as there are fewer people to engage in the change and relationships are more personal and stronger.
Another factor we might cite is longevity – those organisations that are new start-ups, entrepreneur-led, technology-led, millennial-led and so on are choosing products and service sectors that mean innovation is at the core of the business model. Added to which they are personally less likely to need or value control. Research by Smith and Williamson (members of the Scale-up Institute) shows that ‘almost half of scale-up businesses (42%) were founded by individuals aged 18 to 34 while just 18% of founders across all business are in this age group.’
And yet, the research undertaken by Frederic Laloux looking at next generation organisations cites examples of businesses across all of these criteria who are embracing a new form of organisational culture based on self-management, a clear and empowering purpose and a deep commitment to the humanness and well-being of the people in the organisation – not just in terms of well-being programmes but culturally too. So in those organisations fear is a whole lot less likely to be present.
So in reality we come down to leadership as the common denominator in whether an organisation is steeped in the many forms of fear. Perhaps it’s the senior leaders who fear change because the ‘rules’ that have guaranteed their success to this point need to change and maybe they don’t know how to make the personal adjustments needed? Rules such as slavishly feeding the shareholder machine or believing in the feast/famine cycle of organisational life where costs are dramatically slashed one minute and then relaxed the next.
The control mechanisms used by leaders sit deep within the DNA and can be hard to shift. Though isn’t that the nature of all change – whether we are overcoming an unhealthy habit or looking to introduce a new practice into our lives. We all know how tough it can be to overcome the deeply engrained emotional and personality traits that get in the way.
Leaders have a bigger responsibility to confront those personal challenges and to recognise the need to treat people in the organisation as trusted and capable – or if for some reason they aren’t then to address that directly.
Perhaps we need to all get better at acknowledging our fears and then we can start to open ourselves to the possibility of addressing them.