Martin Zwilling

By Martin Zwilling

Despite the ease of communication through social media, new tools, the popularity of fearless independence and #MeToo, I still see many business organizations that are less than productive due to fear. Yet in my work as an advisor to senior executives, I find that many fail to see reality in their own organizations, and have no idea whether they are part of the problem or the solution.

I finally found some real guidance on this challenge in a new book, “The Fearless Organization,” by Amy C. Edmondson from the Harvard Business School. She presents a wealth of case studies on the pain and business losses from this type of leadership and culture, and provides some practical guidance on how to change it to a more psychologically safe and productive workplace.

If you are one of those leaders or team members who really wants to change things, here are some key indicators of the problems that I have seen, and some pragmatic guidance on how to get things moving in the right direction:

Team members fail to speak up for fear of retribution. Hearing too much silence in your organization is a dangerous sign. This reticence to speak up, for fear of being embarrassed, intimidated, or penalized, can lead to widespread frustration, anxiety, depression, or even physical harm to others. Team members just don’t feel protected.

Changing this culture has to start from the top. You as a team leader or executive have to openly invite participation from every team member, and respond positively in tone and actions when people actually do speak up. Show humility and appreciation for all input.

People show excessive confidence in authority. In some organizations, especially medical and highly technical ones, authority and reverence are well understood and tightly linked to one’s place in a strict hierarchy. Deference to the leaders can become the default mode of operation, suppressing valuable input, to the detriment of everyone.

The solution here is to hire and surround yourself with people who bring strong complementary skills to the table, as well as high confidence and self-esteem. In my experience, leaders who hire helpers rather than real help are breeding this problem.

A culture of silence where leaders fail to listen. Often employees learn to stay silent when they see that voicing concerns or ideas is futile. In fact, they usually give up not just their voice but also their entire psychological engagement with your company. Evidence of not listening includes interrupting feedback, being defensive, or no evident follow up.

You can reverse this culture by asking for opinions or updates at the end of meetings – then pause and ask again, so they know you are sincere. Also, you must be available and approachable. Mingle with employees. Ask questions, listen to responses. Be conscious of your eye contact, facial expression and tone of voice.

Impossible stretch goals are never challenged. Performance goals set without team member input, and without support and feedback, are a sure sign of managing by fear. Most people feel that unattainable targets led to the serious problems at both Wells Fargo and Volkswagen a couple of years ago. Both are still struggling to change their culture.

The solution is to communicate what you want – early and often – once is not enough for people to take you seriously. Then ask for input, listen to the evidence, and provide feedback based on what you hear. Be fair and consistent, with no excuses or emotion.

You only hear the good news from team members. How many times have you chopped people off at the knees for being the bearer of bad news? Team members learn quickly, and the message spreads, that problems must be buried, and people are berated or penalized for surfacing tough issues. It’s fair to ask for solutions, in a positive way.

Actually, the best approach is to ask the hard questions to get to the heart of a problem in a non-threatening fashion. Hard discussions can be the most productive, as well as more satisfying to team members, if they feel they are being heard and can make a difference.

Psychological safety is a workplace state in which people feel confident expressing themselves and comfortable calling attention to problems without humiliation or retribution, where colleagues trust and respect one another. In today’s complex world of constant change, collaboration in a fearless organization is the only way to survive and thrive, and only you can build it.

The writer is a veteran startup mentor, executive, blogger, author, tech professional, professor, and investor. Published on Forbes, Entrepreneur, Inc, Huffington Post.