Why Facing Fear Pays off for Us, our Teams, and our Organizations
Some time ago, the CEO of a mid-size financial services company once came to me for consulting. She wanted help finding out why her staff was underperforming, and how they could ramp up productivity.
I began the process by doing an interactive consultation with her and her staff team. Watching them interact told me a whole lot about their leadership and team culture. In general, the CEO was the one who answered my questions. When a staff member answered, they looked at her first to make sure it was okay.
Whenever I see this behavior, it’s usually a dead giveaway that a team has a leadership model that author Jim Collins calls “the genius with a thousand helpers” (Good to Great). The boss is always right and staff is there to support him or her. As a result, staff members experience a hopelessness because their own great or creative ideas will never get heard, or if they do, the boss will take credit for it. This low morale directly degrades productivity.
While there are many “genius”-style leaders like this who manage to get results in the short term, over time the dysfunctional effects of this top-heavy leadership model become apparent. Low productivity, high turnover, lack of innovation, etc. ultimately prevent their organizations from achieving sustainable success—and sometimes drive them into the ground.
As I dug deeper into the state of this financial services company, I saw that the productivity issue was indeed life-threatening to the organization. Based on the financial position of the company, if nothing changed in the organizational culture, it was almost certain that drastic action would be needed to save it. Either the leader would need to make radical personal adjustments to her leadership approach, or she would be forced to make major staff reductions while putting much higher performance demands on the remaining employees to meet the production levels required to avoid bankruptcy.
Paying the Price of Confronting Our Fear
When I met with the CEO to give her feedback on my findings, I pulled no punches in explaining to her that her options moving forward were all going to be expensive in some way. But I encouraged her that if she was willing to pay the personal price to grow and adjust, she had the potential to change the culture, start pulling the best out of her people, and create long-term health in the organization.
One of the key moments of self-discovery for her came when I asked her, “Can you imagine being with your leadership team and saying, ‘I don’t know what to do about this issue. Can we collaborate as a team to find a solution?’”
She admitted that the very idea was extremely uncomfortable, if not terrifying to her.
Knowing that we had come to the heart of the issue, I invited her to go after this fear. I explained that every leader I know is afraid of being exposed as incompetent, and therefore, a fraud. However, unless we confront this fear, it will continue to influence our behavior, driving us to project confidence and flawless expertise while covering up or fending off any exposure of weakness. Above all, it leads us to isolate ourselves and keep the very people we need to cover our areas of weakness at a distance, leaving us even more vulnerable.
Persevering in Vulnerability
Eventually, over months of consultation, this CEO decided to face her fears and risk being vulnerable with her team. I advised her that when she finally did ask for their input, her team would be shocked and not believe that her intentions were pure. Sure enough, because of the culture she had created to that point, no one on the team trusted her. It was a wake-up call for her to see the culture of mistrust at the heart of the company.
Courageously, she went on a mission to become more vulnerable with her team. Eventually, she convinced them that she genuinely wanted and was a safe place to receive their input. The principle of “trust meeting trust, and vulnerability meeting vulnerability” began to create a new dynamic in their interactions and relationships. Over time, her team members grew into a place where they all felt safe exposing their work-related fears, and in some cases, their personal fears. As they came together to address these fears and build solutions, they became a huge source of strength for this CEO and each other.
The trickle-down effect of these changes to the company was remarkable. This CEO ended up with a high-functioning, high-trust culture that became more profitable as its people felt the strength of a culture of honor.
The Impact of a Leader Who Is Willing to Change
When I meet with leaders to report on what I’ve found after evaluating the health of their organization, ninety-nine times out of a hundred, I have to tell them that the results point directly to the actions of leader and not their staff. As you can imagine, those meetings are hard. Sadly, many leaders are not ready to receive this feedback and make the sacrifices needed to adjust.
However, those who do, like this CEO, demonstrate that they are truly great leaders. It is the great leader who can take honest feedback, look into the mirror, say, “Okay, I must change,” and, for the good of the organization, actually embrace that change.
Thankfully, the price this CEO paid for personal growth paid off—not only for the company, but also for her. For one, shifting into a much more personal way of leading actually matched her personality outside of work, which freed her to be much more authentic. One result of this was that she made the wonderful discovery that her staff actually really liked her! Her reward was closer relationships at the office, better creative thinking by the staff, higher productivity, and increased margins.
It’s impossible to overstate the impact that we have as leaders when we are willing to face our insecurities and choose to move toward the people around us with vulnerability and trust. Though in our fear, it seems that exposing our areas of struggle and asking for help will diminish our credibility, the opposite is true. When our people see us honestly leading and trying our best to be vulnerable as a leader, they become willing to run through a brick wall for us. When we risk paying the price for their success, they will risk the same for us.