Eliminate Fear, Create Safety

February 20, 2019

Often silos within an organization are based on fear. There can be many different justifications for such fear. For example, the fear is expressed as territoriality, “This is my turf, no outsiders allowed.” You see this with teams who will not allow others access to whatever it is that they control. They use all sorts of justifications to support this (compliance, regulations, etc.), those reasons are often just smoke screens for the fact that they are afraid of opening up and letting others in. Outsiders are a threat. If you let someone in they get to see how you work, and maybe they will recognize areas of weakness (change, improvement). Sometimes they do not fear the outsiders as much as they fear their own management. This is typically manifested as a pattern of C.Y.A. (Cover Your A**) behavior. When this happens, you find resistance to letting others in because it may expose them to criticism by others.

How does fear manifest itself? If you are trying to talk to someone in another group and they start whispering to you so they can’t be overheard by others, that should be considered to be a strong indicator of a culture of fear. This is someone who feels that they cannot say certain things without some sort of punishment. On the other hand, the fact that they are willing to take a risk and share with you at all is a sign of trust on their part – trust in you.

What can we do about it?

First, we need to acknowledge that there probably is not much we can change in their environment. Whatever is causing the issues with fear hopefully has little to do with you. That means that all you can do is make sure that you do not aggravate the situation further when you are in their domain. The last thing they need to do is fear you too. That means that you have to be willing to deal with them in a fashion where they do not feel threatened. If they think you are going to escalate issues to their management, then you are not going to have a chance to build any trust with them. On the other hand, if they believe that they can bring difficult issues to you and that you will do everything you can to help them out, and then you have a shot to build a better relationship.

How can we create safety?

Ultimately, what we are after is the kind of relationship with the other group that can be open an honest. That does not mean everybody is happy all the time. Quite to the contrary, a healthy relationship, a safe relationship is one where the two groups can get upset with each other and express grievances. Signs of safety?

  • Disagreement
  • Emotion
  • Reassurance
  • Laughter
  • Good-natured teasing

Some of these things may seem contradictory. Emotion, especially strong emotion can seem very threatening. Disagreement and conflict can also be seen as a threat. However, in an environment where people feel safe, these things are part of healthy interaction. You need someplace where people can feel passionate (strong emotions). You need someplace where people can take a contrary position and debate alternatives (disagreement).

Bad Programmers

May 23, 2010

There was an article in the CACM recently that caught my attention entitled, “In Praise of Bad Programmers”

Still here?

Apparently the provocative  title really sets off some fire alarms for people. I shared the article, which I personally thought was great, with a team and we discussed it together. I thought the whole conversation went really well and I thought it felt very productive. Afterward, I discovered that everyone in the room had apparently been thinking one thing: “He thinks I’m a bad programmer”. I’m not sure they recalled any of the conversation after reading the article. In fact, I’m quite sure they didn’t.

That reaction probably says a few things about us:

  1. We don’t feel safe talking about our skills with each other
  2. The team felt some sort of judgement was being made by me
  3. How you frame the conversation really does make a difference

Having done this sort of thing for a while, none of the above particularly shocks or surprises me. It’s just a reminder that some conversations with teams are harder than others. You don’t avoid them, but you need to be prepared to set the stage well before the conversation, make sure the team feels safe enough to deal with the conversation, and have a way to check in with them afterward to make sure your read on the conversation isn’t incorrect.

Oh, and if they’re still angry after all that, then it’s really their problem. I’m a coach not a therapist.