Do You Want Courageous or Fearful Employees?

The question of whether to breed fear or courage in your employees seems to have an obvious answer—courage. But the way some companies approach workforce management, you would think they mostly wanted fearful employees.

A column in Forbes last week ponders whether companies are nurturing fear or courage. Writer Margie Warrell offers courage-boosting suggestions such as creating a bold vision and a shared sense of mission, and helping employees get comfortable feeling uncomfortable.

When I passed by a Starbucks this morning, I noticed a small blackboard posted on the sidewalk advertising drinks to help passersby “cool down.” I started wondering how much liberty store managers had to decide what to promote in such street advertising. Does a corporate directive come down to all the stores telling them what to post on their sidewalk chalkboards or in their windows? Or can a store manager decide that advertising ways to cool down doesn’t make sense given the recent weather?

I imagined myself the CEO, or owner, of a huge company like Starbucks, and felt sure I wouldn’t want top-down directives on advertising, whether on the street or on social media. My approach would be to do comprehensive training on appropriate and effective marketing, and then empower store managers to come up with their own messaging for their community. This is a risky approach—one that requires courage. It’s easier, and dumber, to create complex bureaucracy in which managers have to submit ideas for marketing to a panel of gatekeepers for approval. Such a system is cautious and prudent, but not necessarily smart in terms of marketing and responsiveness. It creates a cumbersome organization that can’t be nimble in communications. It also encourages an organization that doesn’t have voices communicating with communities that resonate with them.

If your company wants to take a decentralized approach to decision-making, whether in marketing or in another area, how to do you do it in a smart way? In addition to taking responsiveness and meaning away from communications, the red-tape approach can affect employee psyches. It’s frustrating and depressing when nothing gets done in a timely manner—or at all—because of an excessive approval process. A couple years ago, I wanted to have my company participate in Toys for Tots. I simply wanted to take an empty box, post it in a central location in the office, and then have an employee with an SUV or other large vehicle volunteer to drive the box full of donated toys to a Toys for Tots drop-off location. I asked permission for this from our Human Resources department more than month—maybe even two months—in advance. Our HR executive got approval, but there was one problem—she got approval for someone from Toys for Tots coming to our office to pick up the box, but not for someone in our office to transport the box. It’s true that if the employee got into a serious, or fatal, accident on his or her way to drop the box off, the company could potentially be sued. But come on! There are a million things that happen every day that the company could be sued for. I have a structural bar under my desk that I banged my knee on so many times I injured myself—that could have been a lawsuit. Is fear of litigation reason enough to stop doing new things in a timely, responsive manner—in the moment? It seems like it’s usually another excuse for inaction and fear. Companies hide behind the threat of lawsuits, so they can avoid doing nearly anything and blame their inaction on a fear of lawsuits.

Fearfulness also can be seen in the mirroring of words and catch phrases in meetings. Remember about 10 years ago when everyone kept talking about “cascading” this and that throughout the organization? It seems like there’s often an agreed-on language with approved words and phrases for communication. This agreed-on lexicon sometimes can take the approach of mansplaining. My editor (recently removed as my boss) likes to take the words of mostly women, and then repeat exactly what they said—but in his own words. Have any of you experienced this in your meetings? Sometimes it isn’t a male-female issue, but an issue of a “seasoned” executive taking the words of a new employee or an employee with another perspective (whether race or culture) and then repeating his or her ideas and words in the approved language. That agreed-on lexicon is born of fear, isn’t it? There’s a fear that you need to stay within the framework of the “OK” words and ways of expressing yourself.

How do you create a courageous workforce? And then there are the larger questions: Do you even want a courageous workforce? What are the rewards, and potential challenges, of empowering employees to bring forth new ideas and decentralizing authority so they can pursue those ideas?



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