We’re fascinated by the reasons that things go wrong. And they go wrong quite often. In fact, whole industries are devoted to the diagnosis of failure and there are some lovely, detailed models of organizational disaster. In many cases there is a simple, accessible common factor that affects us as individuals and as organizations. It’s anxiety – or the diffculty individuals and organizations have managing their anxiety. This lens has been helpful as I’ve watched smart, talented people and organizations drive themselves into the ground.

It happens when the whole focus of attention is on the risks and dangers of living in this difficult world. While I’m not so pollyanna that I think we should only focus on our strengths and opportunities; it is easy to get into an obsessive preoccupation with managing risks, real and imagined. I used to think it we could blame the corporate legal department because it’s their job to identify and hedge the organization against excessive risk. But it has more to do with the way we react to potential risk:  we let it control our business choices.

It manifests in a couple of ways in organizational life. One occurs when organizations begin to multiply their policies and rules to cover every potential problem. The paradox is that contracts and policies that build in protections from every type of malfeasance or negligence define the relationship as fundamentally absent of trust. That is, they communicate more than limits or boundaries; they also communicate an implicit expression of the relationship itself. Perhaps more importantly, the multiplication of rules and policies has a chilling effect on creativity and innovation. When there are many rules, employees become overly consumed in making sure that they are not violating them.

And then  comes the documentation. While documentation is important to preserve records of actions and ensure reporting, the need to document everything can mean that 20 to 30% of the creative energy of the organization is diverted from customer service, product development, or business strategy. Some businesses find that filling out forms is their new business model. New rules and requirements in HR policy or in contracts should be subject to their own rigorous risk assessment: do they add sufficient incremental safety to justify the additional negative impact on climate and workload?

I met a consultant recently whose firm focuses on performance improvement through people policies and practices. She told me stories of companies that had accelerated the aggregation of HR policies, clearly communicating to the workforce that none of them could be trusted and they were expected to attempt to steal everything possible from the company. She said something that CCL believes most fervently: you can’t change performance if you don’t address the culture. She proposes a single sentence HR policy: Every employee is expected to work for the best interests of the company and its customers and employees.

A culture of distrust (and control) cannot spawn an organization where everyone gives their best. That kind of culture only comes where leaders believe in the capability and generosity of their followers. Unfortunately, when the market is down and the strategy isn’t working well, it becomes easy to blame the attitudes on the workforce. Or when someone goes off the track, it’s easy to clamp down on everyone. The multiplication of “zero tolerance” policies shows how quickly we accede to the hierarchical solution; even if the result is the arrest of 5-year-olds for carrying camping utensils for show-and-tell.

Compliance is not creativity.

Control is not commitment.

Passion, creativity, commitment are all freely given or they are not given at all.

Our culture is flailing in a sea of anxiety…about the economy, about jobs, about competing on the world stage. This is the time to reinforce our commitment to collaboration, mutual trust, and shared goals. When anxious, our best escape is in a return to core values. We need to line up with people who are leading the way to positive environments, inspiring innovation, and making high performance a pleasure.

Find them. Shine a light on their energy and grant others the freedom to do it, too.


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