Once we start school and experience a group setting, we slowly recognise it is hard to bring our full selves to school. We become aware that we need to watch what we say or we can be picked on, ridiculed, or perceived in a negative light. As a consequence, we start to develop a self-protection strategy. As Sociologist Erving Goffman stated in his 1957 book, The Presentation of the Self in Everyday Life, as humans, we are constantly attempting to influence others' perceptions of us by regulating and controlling information in social interactions.
This self-protection strategy we develop continues and flows into our job, as the workplace still continues to be a group environment. As people have withdrawn from bringing their full selves since school, and wary of speaking up, this reveals that a certain level of fear already pre-exists coming into the work environment. 'Am I good enough', 'will I succeed', 'will they like me' are some of the thoughts and anxieties that worry us. Once we start work, if fear is not alleviated, this obstructs communication, collaboration, effective decision making, speaking up, and the sharing of knowledge and information within the team and organisation.
This is not productive in knowledge-intensive work, which comprises most businesses today. Organisations today need ideas, ingenuity, and innovation. Building knowledge, growth, and becoming a learning organisation, coined and popularised by Peter Senge, will not take place if people are not interacting and do not feel confident and comfortable to speak up if nobody is going to listen, or there is any chance of them being perceived in a negative light.
Many leaders still use fear to motivate. Leaders assume that when people work in fear, they will work harder to avoid making mistakes or errors, and boost creativity in innovation and problem solving. In actuality, fear heightens stress, silence, self-protection, and the fear of messing up. They do not recognise that people already have a certain level of fear and uneasiness coming into the organisation, and they are just making it worse by sustaining an unhealthy work environment and pushing a culture of silence.
Working in fear, people are forced into positions where they need to decide either to bring concerns or failures to attention or protect themselves, stay silent, and sweep them under the rug. As the latter option is usually chosen, leaders are under the impression that they are getting the best out of their people.
Dr Deming foresaw the importance of driving out fear and included it as one of his 14 points of management. In The New Economics, he stated that fear invites wrong data. To keep his job, anyone may present to his boss only good news. He further points out that blaming people for problems and failures will increase fear and this fear results in tainted data, ineffective decision making, and the destruction of joy in work. Fear drives people to do whatever is needed to protect themselves, they will not be interested in working together to make improvements in the system, and they will not openly share problems so they can be addressed.
Extensive research in neuroscience has demonstrated that experiencing fear on a daily basis inhibits learning. Fear diverts activity away from the parts of the brain that manage working memory and the processing of new information. This is why it is hard for people to do their best work when they work in fear. Fear creates stress and the body’s stress response was not made to be constantly engaged, therefore, mental health and wellbeing is also hugely affected.
It is not enough to hire talented individuals if barriers, silos, and fear are the working conditions. These working conditions obstruct learning from one another, improving, collaboration, and the sharing of knowledge. For work to flourish, the workplace needs to allow people to bring their full selves to work and create a trusting and safe environment for them to share their knowledge, make suggestions, point out concerns, and report failures.
In 2017, a Gallup poll found that only 3 in 10 employees strongly agree with the statement that their opinions count at work. This is why it is crucial to drive out fear and create a culture of listening. People are not given a voice and they feel their opinions do not count. Due to these circumstances they do not feel like they are part of the company and their work is appreciated. There is minimal joy in work so they become unhappy, detached, and disengaged.
With more knowledge-intensive work, more and more of the tasks people do require judgment, suggesting new ideas and improvements, coping with being in unexplored territory, and collaborating with others to transform to a learning organisation. This signifies that voice is crucial in learning organisations, and to utilise this, it must be systematised. Otherwise, problems do not surface, improvement opportunities are missed, and due to all the silence, the company may find itself drowning.
Allow the Freedom to Fail.Failure is a source of valuable data and learning only happens when you dig into failure’s lessons. For this to happen you need to document your innovation and improvement projects (successes and failures) so lessons can be drawn from the projects now and in the future. Moving forward you will be able to look back (even if people have moved on) and easily see what worked and what did not work.
It is important to test fast, learn fast, improve fast, and build knowledge and capability in the organisation. You can achieve this with the AimiHub software application. It is the only application that fully incorporates the Model for Improvement.
The Model for Improvement developed by API (who are also the authors of The Improvement Guide, and more recently, Ami (Accelerated Model for Improvement) developed by PKP, was created for this function. It has its foundation in the scientific method, brought to business by Shewhart.
Once failure becomes part of the process and the volume can be turned down on anxiety and fear, engagement and learning will improve and growth from these failures can eventuate.
In today's organisations, learning, building knowledge, development, effective communication and collaboration are key. By building and improving in these areas will a company grow and survive. If people do not speak up or are afraid to speak up, the organisation's ability to innovate, improve, and grow will be threatened.