Fear, Openness and the “I Can Fire You” Effect

Fear is the biggest drag on productivity in most companies.  Even a tiny amount can stifle communication and slow down work.  Most often it’s the boss’ fault.  And most bosses are in denial about it.

In coaching a newer C-level executive, Danny, I was able to get his direct report Sarah to admit to him that she found him off-putting and his “body language” was “unwelcoming.”  Whatever that meant.

This was a breakthrough, because it meant that the subordinate, Sarah, was able to verbalize something that was scary to say. When we “share the scare” responsibly it can build team trust and also make us braver.

Unfortunately, we didn’t get very far just then — because Sarah couldn’t be any clearer about her experience.

We often get stuck because it’s hard to get people to talk to each other about behavior. We barely notice real behavior — the stuff that a video camera would pick up. We mostly notice our conclusions about behavior.

Instead of saying “he frowned at me when I came in the door” — which is behavior — we tend to say “she was disrespectful” — which is our conclusion or interpretation of the behavior that we actually saw or experienced.

Because these two things — the behavior and our interpretation of it — happen almost simultaneously, we often don’t see the difference.

So, we tabled that discussion and I had a one-on-one with the C-level executive, Danny.

“I don’t understand what she could possibly mean,” Danny said. He had his lips pressed tightly together, he was looking away from me, and frowning. He slowly shook his head. “I have no idea what body language he’s talking about,” he said, shrugging.

“We can work on Sarah’s skills another time. Let me ask you, though — do you see how someone could have some concern when talking to you?” I asked.

Danny’s eyebrows bunched together in a picture of confusion. “No…” he said.

“You might just as well have a tattoo on your forehead that says ‘I can fire you.’ When you frown, just because you’re thinking about the water heater at your house, other folks start to get scared. They may worry you’re frowning because of something they said or did,” I explained.

Danny started nodding. “I never thought of that.”

Bottom line: every boss needs to create emotional safety for each person in the firm, especially those over whom they have role power. Only with emotional safety can you start truly honest dialog.

PS: Sarah still isn’t good at describing behavior, yet she’s improving. And Danny is smiling more, because he knows he has the power and the responsibility to banish fear, create safety, and invite openness.

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