This lack of trust often translated to us feeling uneasy, unsteady and fearful. We feared their motives. We feared their proverbial knife plunging into our backs. We feared their decisions. We feared their opinions. All this fueled our biggest fear of all -- our fear of failing.
We have all heard the expression "the smell of fear." Well, I am first to concede that I am a true believer in that notion. I also believe that the smell of fear comes in a few distinctive scents.
Over the years of my corporate risk assessment work, it seems I have developed quite a nose for these scents. They are indicators that leadership dysfunction is in the immediate area.
So what does the fear of failure smell like?
A clear indication you have sniffed out a bad case is when you run into employees that appear paralyzed. Employees who are frozen in their tracks, as though exposed to a serious dose of nerve gas. When queried, they politely confess to playing it safe, not wanting to rock the boat. No real innovation seems to occur, little self-started initiatives are under way. Little evidence exists of risk-taking, which sadly translates to no real rewards or gains.
Fearing failure also comes in a thick musky scent too. You smell this in areas where employees have heavily overengineered their decisions and processes. It tends to be in areas that are suffering from inefficiencies, expensive cost and schedule overruns. It is the world where employees feel they need to "measure" infinite times before they "cut" anything. Progress here tends to be slow and heavy.
But don't be fooled. You also know you are smack in the middle of a fear farm when you come across that very pleasant but suspicious rosy scent. Here when queried, employees are quick to share tales of their wonderful world, a magical world with very few problems in it. Everything is simply peachy keen. But you can't help notice they seem all too anxious to push you out the door. Here is the world where employees mask problems and risks, tend to be secretive and often noncollaborative.
If the fear-of-failure scents become too widespread in an organization, that company is very likely facing a death sentence. It is amazing to think this ugly domino effect of fear started with the lack of one simple thing, trust in a leader.
In my view, having employees trust their leaders translates to the most effective risk control for any organization. But how can our employees learn to trust their leaders? What is the secret?
To put things in risk management terms, fear is built from volatility, inconsistency and lack of predictability; while trust correlates directly with reliability and predictability.
Trust is built through consistent behavior. Leaders that "walk their talk," behave in a reliable, predictable manner, handle situations evenly, and make consistent decisions or judgments will gain the trust of their employees. A leader may not be particularly personable, and they may even be gruff. But if they remain consistent with their persona and behaviors, employees will trust them.
Ironically, we have all learned that risk and volatility tend to translate to higher rewards, but just not when it comes to building trust.
JOANNA MAKOMASKI is an internationally recognized enterprise risk management executive with experience in energy, health care, and most recently in the sporting event sectors. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
March 1, 2013
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