Tuesday, 20 September 2011

The Dance of The Seven Veils

There is no doubt that we are existing within the confines of the Chinese curse – we live in “interesting times”.  The global economy is in turmoil: S&P’s downgrading of Italy’s sovereign debt from A+ to A is likely to further fuel the crisis in the Eurozone; it’s commonly agreed amongst the experts that Greece may still default; French Banks are badly exposed to other nations’ debt;  Ireland Portugal and Spain are still struggling; the IMF has slashed forecasts for UK and US economies (the UK is predicted to grow 0.4 less at just 1.1% this year and 0.7 less at 1.6% in 2012 and the prediction for the US has been cut by  0.6 to 0.7%); and there is talk of strikes (even by tennis players!) and further rioting.  It is hardly surprising that senior leaders in organizations of all sizes are concerned.

Regrettably senior leadership’s fear and behaviours often trickle down through an organisation, with more junior employees mimicking their seniors – I was talking to an experienced project manager only this morning, she is tired of the fact that decisions are continually being changed and revoked, so that what she thought were her priorities last Monday had been changed at least four times by Thursday and she knows that what she is currently supposed to be doing will have altered again before the end of this week.  She hates the fact that she is not getting anything done and questions the value of having her working on certain projects until a firm decision has been made as to the required actions and outcomes.  The vacillation she is experiencing is often a result of individuals not wishing to be blamed if a decision proves to be wrong.  The manifestation of a fear or blame culture.  There is an argument that a degree of fear is healthy in business, as it stops employees from becoming complacent.  However, in my opinion, fear cultures are damaging for all involved.  There are seven ways in which fear commonly is obvious in the work place:

1              As individuals feel their own livelihoods to be threatened, there is usually a marked upturn in distrust and backstabbing – the less pleasant sides of human nature become apparent – personal preservation at the expense of others - with only the foolish or naïve being prepared to speak out or challenge.

2              There is usually an increase in gossip, as backstabbing rumours are spread – partially by innocent individuals who are simply seeking clarification as to what is going on, but also by employees with a personal agenda, who wish to strengthen their own position.  It is common for gossip to occur in a clandestine manner, with individuals choosing to communicate with one another away from the main areas where colleagues work (hence the water-cooler and coffee dispenser discussions) or else by using individual technology – a lot of texts and emails are sent to personal accounts and mobiles, but seldom much in writing on company systems.

3              People become preoccupied with internal issues and how they themselves are perceived, rather than focusing on the external environment, the business and customer needs.  This is an ideal setting in which brown nosed yes-men and yes-women can thrive.  When times are tough it is tempting for frightened leaders to surround themselves with people who tell them what they want to hear.  These leaders, who like the rest of us are only human, find comfort in self-affirming statements, which are often easier to listen to than the truth.

4              Indecision is a common trait in fearful environments.  It is hard to know what the right course of action is and hence from the top downwards individuals try to avoid making commitments and decisions that could backfire on them.  This explains my friend the project manager’s predicament – the sponsors of her projects are frightened and finding it hard to determine the best course of action in the current turbulent business environment.

5              There is often a noticeable increase in secrecy – information is on a “needs to know” basis and hence collaboration is diminished and many opportunities missed.  Often the reason for secrecy is rooted in a desire not to cause unsettling concern.  However, we live in an age when we are used to getting information swiftly and easily (usually at the touch of a button) – there are few things worse for an employee than finding out about a decision or situation through the media or others, rather than being told about it, after the decision has been made or an event has occurred, by their managers.

6              Recruitment becomes increasingly cautious when people are fearful – candidates with industry experience are selected over those with drive and creativity as they are an easier decision to justify should things not turn out well.

7              As times get tougher, most organisations become increasingly preoccupied with numbers – the desire to control and cut costs in the short term can override other more strategic decisions and long term goals.  The bottom line becomes increasingly important; with the “What” as opposed to the “How” targets are achieved being applauded.  Clearly, there is an argument that if a business cannot survive in the short term it has no long term future to aspire to, but if an organisation wants a successful future it will need to provide an environment in which people want to work and stay.  If it fails to do this, valued employees will leave as soon as a preferable opportunity comes along.

I believe leaders need to be risk astute as opposed to simply risk averse.  Many of the seven behaviours described above demonstrate a fear of change and hence a reversion to familiar behaviours and actions rather than embracing the opportunities that change can bring.  It was Einstein who said that insanity is


doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results”.

Fear in the workplace hinders personal, team and organisational performance.  The root of fear is primarily a dread of change - humans have an in-built and natural desire for stability, but stasis is often a false security - organisations and people who cannot adapt as their surroundings change will die out.  people need to be resilient, flexible, and responsive to the now so as to create a strong future.

Many of us are afraid of making mistakes and fear failure, as opposed to being simply resistant to change.  But, some of the most successful individuals the world has seen knew that they would need to fail to succeed.  When Thomas Edison invented the light bulb, he tried over 2000 experiments before he got it to work.  A reporter interviewed him and asked how it felt to fail so many times.  He said, "I never failed once. I invented the light bulb. It just happened to be a 2000-step process."  Another, perhaps even more remarkable, example is Wilma Rudolph, who was the twentieth of twenty two children. She was born prematurely and her survival was doubtful. When she was four years old she contracted double pneumonia and scarlet fever, which left her with a paralysed left leg. When she was nine, the metal leg brace she had been dependent on was removed and she began to walk without it.  By thirteen she had developed a distinctive, rhythmic walk, which doctors said was a miracle. That same year she decided to become a runner. She entered a race and came in last. For the next few years every race she entered, she lost. Everyone told her to quit, but she kept on running. One day she won a race. Then she won another. From then on she won every race she entered.  Eventually this extraordinary girl, who was told she would never walk again, went on to win three Olympic gold medals and was considered to be “the fastest woman in the world” for much of the 1960s.

People who are prepared to fail are the ones who ultimately succeed (as opposed to those who are too scared to try) – sometimes it is necessary to make mistakes to finally get to the right outcome or to reach a better result than that which was originally envisaged.

We all have an identity that we show to the world – a friend on Twitter recently blogged about how he felt as though he had lost a part of his sense of self-worth and identity when he ceased being employed.  I can empathise with him – when I was on maternity leave, although proud and devoted to my sons, I felt that I had lost a part of myself by no longer having a job other than motherhood.  Many entrepreneurs who have stepped out of corporate life to set up on their own businesses have commented to me that the biggest hurdle they often had to overcome was their sense of self-worth and identity prior to making a name for themselves.  People feel comfortable as part of the herd and it takes guts to stand out from the crowd.  However, it is the brave individuals who want to make a difference who enable success.  We each need to be aware of who we are and what we wish to achieve.  Even in times of adversity there are great opportunities for the purposeful and brave to grasp.  The following link shows some excellent, creative and unusual business cards belonging to people not afraid to stand out from the crowd:


Rather than dancing behind the veils of fear and blame, be yourself, know yourself and be aware of the messages you are giving out.


  1. Great post Kate.

    Hits right at the core of leadership - leading from the front in difficult times.

    Also like how you linked "leadership" and "Self-Leadership". Interesting

  2. Love the seven fears - really hit me hard with those two. That delusional leadership thing you talk about in #3 is sadly all too evident in good times as well as bad. I'm not sure why more shareholders don't press for some kind of maverick intervention at the very top - just to check in and help the CEO and others stay a bit real.

    #7, as a previous employee of BT and a shareholder I watch the company shout about more profit and say much less about declining revenue. The profit is being largely generated through cost cutting. It hurts, and it's necessary. And it's a law of diminishing returns. Surprise surprise - they're currently being run by an accountant.I'm sure BT aren't the only example just one I happen to know.

    I enjoyed your two fail to succeed examples - Keira and I were researching Thomas Edison as part of her homework only yesterday. Did you know that two of his kids had the nicknames Dot and Dash :)

    'Even in times of adversity there are great opportunities for the purposeful and brave to grasp.' What a finish - thanks!