I recently visited a large Fortune 200 company. The purpose of my visit was, in part, to process some challenging negative feedback that many middle managers had for their senior executives during their annual 360 Feedback Surveys. In talking with many of the senior executives, I found that their perspective was they were convinced that managers and leaders want the big title, the big role, the big compensation package, and the big office, but not the accountability that comes with it. Several examples were given of deadlines and mutually-agreed specific, measurable goals left unmet by the middle managers. In conversations with the middle managers, however, they provided–as might be expected–a dramatically different perspective. They argued that senior leaders were setting unrealistic goals and they were being forced to achieve the kind of success that would be considered tremendous in times of abundant wealth, resources, and time… but they were asking this of them during these tough times when people are being asked to do more with less and are in a gut-wrenching state of fear of taking risks.
Which group is right? Should the senior executives not expect high levels of performance during these times so that they can all get out of the present recession faster and healthier? Should the middle managers not expect the time, resources, and proper goal-setting? Both are equally fair requests. Yet, both parties are to blame for the present acrimonious situation.
The reality is that neither side wants to accept that they are both operating in an emotional situation akin to being held a “hostage”. But to what are they being held hostage?
- Personal fears and insecurities
- Past results and behaviors
After questioning both sides a bit deeper, I uncovered a surprise consensus – both sides were deeply afraid of speaking up… lacking the courage to ask meaningful questions to a plan/strategy, to challenge conventional wisdom, to explore new ideas, and to solicit outside support. This, to them, would be an implicit admission that they are doing something wrong.
I share this powerful experience because I continue to be alarmed at how little attention we pay to the “emotional state” of employees. The past 9+ months have felt like a hostage situation and it is virtually impossible to be creative/innovative and to perform highly in this state. A form of imbalance in the equilibrium of work has occurred and people know things are just going to be different.
My recommendations are the following:
- Take the “emotional temperature” of both yourself and your staff every day.
- Based on your reading, what immediate interventions can you induce to diffuse those powerful fears? You know yourself and your culture best.
- Revisit what it means to be “empowered” — everyone has felt that at least once in their professional lives — what did it feel like then? What systems were in place that allowed you to be empowered? Make these lists and do not rest until they are manifested fully within your organization.
It takes “corporate courage” to buck this trend, to seek the new, to ask the simple yet powerful questions, and to change the way you and other key stakeholders can effectively collaborate. It all starts with eliminating fear — that dreadful and invisible force we all know is presently around us.