Corporate Fear and Performance Anxiety


The West Point of Capitalism, aka Harvard Business School, lets us peek under the covers in an excellent blog called Working Knowledge. This week features a Q&A with Professor Amy Edmondson on her research (with James Detert) called “Latent Voice Episodes.”

That’s b-school talk for why so many corporate employees are afraid to speak up—even when it would be in the best interest of all to do so. From the interview:

"Perhaps most surprising to us has been the degree to which fear appears to be a feature of modern work life.

"…two beliefs are essential preconditions for the free expression of upward voice: first, the belief that one is not putting oneself at significant risk of personal harm (e.g., embarrassment, loss of material resources) and second, the belief that one is not wasting one’s time in speaking up. In short, voice must be seen as both safe and worthwhile.

"Ultimately, every manager needs to work at being open and accessible and taking action on ideas or reporting back on why action can’t or won’t be taken. These are behavioral skills that all of us can continue to practice and improve.

Meanwhile, over at Adam Smith, Esq., Bruce MacEwen has also discovered Professor Edmondson, in another entry called Are Great Teams Less Productive? (Much better title, Amy). Bruce says:

"In hospitals, "errors" are an indispensable input to learning and organizational change. So Prof. Edmondson assumed that she would find a positive correlation between high-performance teams and low error rates.

"She found the opposite: The more integrated, effective, and highly functional the team, the more error rates were reported.…In well-led teams, the climate of openness made it easier to report and discuss errors, as opposed to teams with weak or punitive leadership.

I think Edmondson’s work is fascinating because of its subject matter: linking soft topics and hard environments. The conclusions seem solid. Nothing wrong with what she said, and a lot to like about it. And yet…

It raises some questions too.

1. That the finding most surprising to a Harvard Business School professor should be “the degree to which fear appears to be a feature of modern work life” I find pretty curious itself.

I would have thought it was pretty damn obvious.

My question is: How does one get on the HBS faculty and yet find the endemic presence of fear in one of our dominant institutions to be a surprise? I sincerely doubt that Ms. Edmondson is unique in this respect. Quite the opposite, I suspect.

And if so, don’t we have to call that naive?

2. The conclusions drawn are almost entirely about the managers. We need to create a healthy environment; we need to listen better; we need to more open, accessible, etc. These are all, as Edmondson says, “behavioral skills that all of us can practice and improve." Good. Agreed. Need to do. And yet…

What does it say that a study finding endemic fear only draws conclusions about the behavioral skills of the zookeepers?

Edmondson says fear comes from two factors: personal and situational. "Individual differences include personality dispositions such as one’s level of extraversion or proactivity, or one’s developed skills such as how to communicate in ways that don’t evoke defensiveness, and also personal concerns about job security and/or mobility." The paper then goes on to discuss what organizations can do—the situational.

This viewpoint is endemic in business. The individual is unchangeable ("disposition"); all the work to be done is organizational.

Think about the potential arrogance implicit in this view. You, lowly employee, are stuck with your dispositions. But we, the Enlightened Managers at Harvard et al—free of fear ourselves—will save you by creating fear-reducing environments. And that’s all that need be done.

First of all, there are plenty of fearful people at HBS. One of my profs once said, "It’s incredible how we can hire for brilliant independent people and within weeks of their first year, they all turn into sheep." Fear is an equal-opportunity disrespector of hierachy.

When the fearful set out to free the faithful followers from fear, failing to fix the fear that festers within, heaven forfend!

Second, if all we focus on is the environment, we degrade individual responsibility. What’s a fearful person to conclude from the emphasis on organizations and environments except that his or her fears are the fault of his bosses? Maureen Dowd today writes about George Tenet as the Ultimate Staff Guy. He was fearful. He didn’t speak up. Bad consequences ensued (okay, not to him). So who does he blame? His boss, of course (who went to Harvard Business School—coincidence? meanwhile, over on the grassy knoll…)

Dowd and others are right to hold Tenet accountable for his silence. We all must be held accountable for our silence. Fear is inevitable—cowardice is a moral choice.

That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t train people to be polite.  It means we should also be teaching them—and ourselves—how to be accountable, to live free of fear and blame, to see and transcend our emotions, to take charge of our own lives. To become fully authentic human beings, capable of expressing ourselves, of saying “screw you” to the sheepherders when that’s what must be said.

Fear is endemic in modern corporate life—Edmondson’s right about that. The question is, what are we doing about it? Teaching behavioral skills about how to influence others is only half the battle—the other half is emotional intelligence, which rests heavily on inner self-discovery. Why don’t B-schools teach that?

Sheep can be trained. People can be trained too, but they are still responsible agents. Sheep respond. People trust. Trusting employees speak up. Sheep don’t. Don’t confuse complacency with trust. You can’t make fearful people courageous by making nice.

Courage is an inside job. We all need to own our own oppression—not wait for a great MBA liberator to set us free. Let’s help humans be accountable for their own humanity, instead of assuming we just need to “manage” them.