The Fear-Free Organization by Paul Brown, Joan Kingsley and Sue Paterson, describes why building a company “fearlessly” is now imperative. Gloria Lombardi’s review.
“The fear-free organisation is one in which information flows unimpeded, relationships are trust-based and energy is freed to focus on organisational goals, not survival.” – Paul Brown, Joan Kingsley and Sue Paterson
To be capable of innovating, businesses need to adapt to emerging situations quickly. They need to question. They need to experiment. And, they need to change strategic direction easily when it is required. However, too often, they are paralysed with fear of task they confront and the consequences. The Fear-Free Organization captures the reasons why building a 21st Century company, fearlessly,pays dividends to growth, both at an individual and corporate level.
The topic of organisational fear is, of course, not new. But, what makes the book of Paul Brown, Joan Kingsley and Sue Paterson different, is that it is rooted in rigorous research on neuroscience.
And, what I liked about The Fear-Free Organization, is its relevance and applicability to just about every field of business transformation, including digital innovation.
The virtual reality of work
The authors remind us that new advances in technology are having potentially life-changing implications. For example, Nicholas Negroponte, the founder and Chairman Emeritus of MIT’s Media Lab, predicts that 30 years from now we will ingest information through the bloodstream! “If we want to learn something like a new language, for example, all we will have to do is swallow a pill containing the information we want. The information will enter the bloodstream and travel the brain where it will be deposited.”
At the other end of the scale, the rise of robotics and autonomous machines may leave some people behind if they are not able to embrace innovation. Some low-skilled workers, secretaries, and assembly-line workers are already experiencing it. “Adding to the anxieties accompanying a drop in, or loss of, income (and for some a total loss of gainful employment) are the difficulties of having to learn, become adept in, understand and be able to operate all the working implications of new technologies.”
In some organisations, there is a divide between employees operating completely in their comfort zone and others who struggle with new technologically driven communications. “People communicate through e-mails and text messages; via chat forums, Twitter, and social media such as Instagram and Facebook. Meetings are held in virtual reality. Conference calls happen over Skype. For senior executives who entered the workplace in the Mad Men era, it can be quite disabling.”
Yet, with or without fear, the future will continue to depend upon inter-connectivity in virtual reality. And, the future is exciting for companies that are able to adapt.
From fear to trust
“Remember there is no final state. Relationships are endlessly dynamic, and business of all kinds is a continuous and continuing journey. The high energy that can be brought into play through human beings in trusting relationships cannot be bought, it can only be gifted.” – Paul Brown, Joan Kingsley and Sue Paterson
Confronted with a fear of changing, many companies build self-protective barriers. For example, they create increasing numbers of rules and regulations. But, layers of bureaucracy and red tape are not the solutions.
Instead, the authors make the case for creating a “culture of trust,” where communications and relationships are the key drivers of value creation. “Coping with complexity in an organisation and succeeding in a changing business environment depends critically on how people in that organisation relate to one another, and how sense is made together.”
Far from Pollyanna platitude, the authors’ advice actually reflects what modern leaders and effective communicators know: the ability to have good conversations is central to quality interactions. “It is the most important skill humans have to stop fear in its tracks and to create the environment where people can thrive. It is the capacity that is needed to allow solutions to emerge.”
Yet, they point out that not all conversations are the same. They explore distinct but related forms:
“Feedback”: one special form of conversation that allows a check to be made. “It is all about learning how others view a situation – understanding how someone else just made sense of what happened. Incorrect assumptions are undone, replaced by honest understanding.”
“Telling stories”: the understanding of meaning can be much more profound as “facts can be connected with values and feelings all at once.”
“Confrontation”: refers to working together with a potential adversary – rather than being afraid to speak up – in order to reach a shared understanding of what happened. And, to decide “together” what to do next.
I also found the mention of “dilemmas” particularly appropriate. In times of disruption, people can get stuck, “unable to decide the way forward.” There are several related reasons causing it such as the deep-seated values that are powered by emotions and difficult to articulate. Additionally, people find it hard to choose because they can sometimes see the value in conflicting arguments.
Ultimately, “a conversation to uncover the nature of the dilemma is the first step in resolution.”
In today’s digital economy it is more important than ever that businesses innovate. In order to have an impact, they need to respond to the realities of the technologically driven world, effectively.
Fear is, and always will, be part of the human condition. It is linked to notions of loss. In the corporate world loss can be fatal – be that damage to reputation, financial or during crises the death of individuals.
But, if companies remained stagnant because they feared the (negative) consequences or outcomes of a risk they sought to take, then might they over time demise? The great innovations of the last century, and indeed in the first decade of the 21st Century, could not have come about without entrepreneurs taking a risk – they must have had fears, but through conquering them they made progress.
It is refreshing to read a book whose authors believe that the long-term success of a business is related to building trusting relationships. Paul Brown, Joan Kingsley and Sue Paterson do so in a convincing way without sounding preachy.
Leaders, internal communicators as well as professionals managing business transformation, will find the ideas mentioned in The Fear-Free Organization particularly useful. They will help them build a more agile, innovative and indeed fearless workplace.