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There is a raft of things I could say about this topic as a result of 20+ years consulting on fear in the workplace. Tom Roux's question is a very interesting one. My answer is that yes, some leaders can get it, but not simply because someone has stood up to them on an issue. They get it because they begin to experience a gap internally between who they want to be as a boss and who they are. What causes this? Well, sometimes a particularly clear dialogue with someone who they respect; sometimes evidence that their approach is costing them personally (such as a poor review or threatened dismissal); and sometimes life happens -- a divorce, the illness of a child, etc. -- that causes a person to reflect deeply on themselves.

What is also the case is that at least in traditional American business culture, there has been little real emphasis placed on the value of messengers. Instead, of course, they're "shot." When I am asked to do training to help open up cultures, it is most often a request to help messengers be "better" than a request to help receivers learn from issues where their own behavior is part of the problem. Instead, the messenger is blamed for failing to carry the message in a perfect way. This overemphasis on messenger skills rather than receiving skills is the number one reason in my book we have problems. It's a power issue and also a "sleep" issue. By putting all the emphasis on messengers and their skills the receivers are enabled to stay asleep to their own abrasive or ambiguous behavior -- the two primary causes of fear. As one of my first and best bosses said to me, "If you can't get feedback, you simply shouldn't be in the role of a leader." Seems simple enough until you actually try to drive out the fear.

Tom Roux

Interesting post.
Quick question: How often do you think it is the case that the fear-inducing boss who *is* told that s/he is screwing is still going to carry on in the same fashion anyway?
In my career, I've respectfully stood up to a couple of somewhat pretentious supervisors when I knew they were dead wrong on an issue. Even after the truth came out and my position was revealed to be the better one, all it got me was a reputation for being a difficult subordinate and a ride to the top of the candidate list when layoff time came around.
Thankfully, each time I've redeemed myself by moving on to bigger and better positions with the knowledge that some guys just don't want to hear that the plane is about to crash.

Wally Bock

Gladwell does a nice job describing several things, including the role of cultural factors in how group decisions are made under stress. He describes Hofstede's cultural dimensions, especially Power/Distance. All of this is a part of a larger field known as Human Factors research that studies how our humanity affects how we react in various situations. Human Factors research is used by accident prevention organizations, fire departments and the military, among others

Chip Overclock

When lives are at stake and you only have seconds to act, things probably should seem black and white. But at least in the world I live in, high tech product development, things are not that simple.

Everything is a trade off, a compromise, and changes to improve one area frequently lead to emerging issues in another area. While I may disagree with a decision made by my boss (where "boss" can be a technical lead, a product manager, a CEO, etc.), my 30+ years of experience tell me that he might well be right, or at best it's a priority call, where none of us really have sufficient information to make the optimal decision that would require a crystal ball.

A lot of leadership is about making the right decision using very fuzzy logic. And as we're finding out in the current economic climate, a lot of decisions can appear good, or at least benign, when you're surfing the bow wave of a growing economy. (Cue Warren Buffet's quote about it only being when the tide goes out that you find out who is swimming naked: more broadly applicable I think then maybe he intended.)

It might seem like a non-sequitur, but for sure a lot of engineering is about about contingency plans in case things toes up in some critical area. But the constant pressure to reduce costs to be more competitive has reduced the ability to make and carry out such contingency plans. Less and less redundancy, less and less excess capacity needed to handle rapid changes in circumstances.

I'm talking about engineering. But replace "engineering" with "finance" and it starts sounding a lot like how we might have gotten into our current economic circumstances.

I sometimes wonder if our technological infrastructure is as much a house of cards as our financial infrastructure has turned out to be.

It's more likely I'm just a cranky old man.


Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers summarizes similar research quite nicely. The example of the dismal safety record of Korean Air improving after the cultural issues were identified is very interesting. Is there any research that suggests a direct co-relation between the Power Distance Index ( ) and quality of leaders / managers like it did in the case of air travel safety?

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