In business parlance, an espoused value is a belief the company consciously and publically asserts. A real value is a belief that actually plays out inside the organization’s culture despite what the company asserts.

Does a firm need to wield fear in order to produce quality products and services? Does fear produce a superior work environment? Is fear an acceptable value at a firm?

Absolutely not, and you should seriously question any firm where fear is evident in any more than a healthy measure. Even if it’s at a respected, famous company. What’s a healthy measure? Listen to your gut–it knows.

Not only that, there is compelling evidence indicating the “the military legacy and the way of repeating an analytical approach to management in a pyramidal structure” is anachronistic, according to Ricardo Semler, CEO of Brazil’s $1B firm, Semco. Successful firms in our time must be flatter and with all the fear squeezed out.

Here’s how fear played out for someone I know:

I worked at an enterprise search company in Silicon Valley. In my first interview with the hiring manager (a lunch meeting), he asked if I’d ever fired anyone. I had. Then he explained how there were a few things that must be done right away when I came onboard, and he asked if I knew what he meant and if that would be a problem. He was a VP, and his question scared me a little. “Of course,” he said, “you will make your own assessment beforehand but, well, you know what I’m saying.”

My gut told me there was something wrong but my head translated it for me: This is a senior VP at a very successful company. You’re applying for a director role, and he’s talking to you like a director. Say, Yes!

Once I came onboard there was a honeymoon period. My boss paraded me around the firm–even up to the Canadian offices–and spoke highly of my background, experience, and skills. I met other smart people, some of whom he had hired. I thought my boss was charming, well-spoken, and respected.

Then I experienced his staff meetings. Behind the closed conference room door, my boss was brutal with his staff, singling out an individual each time and relentlessly questioning him or her in front of the others, and using circular arguments to make his points. Everyone was too afraid to contradict him, and the flogging went on until the victim sat mute or agreed they had not lived up to their commitments or his expectations.

At first, my head told me the people he berated deserved it–they hadn’t worked hard enough or hadn’t been transparent enough. Then one day, the honeymoon was over, and he raked me over the coals in front of everyone. I was shocked and humiliated because until then he’d sung my praises and I believed I was doing a good job.

My confidence was shaken and–probably due to my inexperience as a manager–I was scared. All the time.

I rebounded a little by working harder and longer. And just as I suspected, my hard work and long hours paid off. For a time, my boss focused his wrath on other directors. Then it was my turn again. The cycle went on and on. One of my colleagues–a senior manager– had a bobble-head on this desk–a generic-looking manager bobble-head, and when you waved your hand in front of him he said, “Yes sir!” It became our self-deprecating effigy symbolizing what our boss looked for in his employees, and what we’d become.

My head was wrong, my gut was right. The senior VP was terminated two years later, and the company was carved up and sold in pieces a year after that. But not before I, and several of my colleagues, quit the firm. I still vividly remember the relief I felt when I made the decision. I was shocked, but not surprised by how many emails I received from peers saying they were thinking of leaving, too.

Fear can play out in a myriad of ways, and on as many levels within a firm. One way you can detect it is by asking yourself how you feel where you are.

Earlier this year, I interviewed two mid-level executives at a well-known Silicon Valley firm (the company is a world leader in designing and manufacturing consumer electronic devices). I asked the executives if they felt stress in their jobs and at the company. Through this questioning, a common theme emerged, even though the individuals worked in different parts of the company:

Fear. A lot of it.

One manager said, I have “fear all the time. Fear to get it done. Like a monkey on your back. 24/7 I  am thinking about work. I go to sleep talking about work, and I wake up talking about work. I’m putting in 80 or 85 hours.”

The other said: “I think there is a fear…that comes from the top down that guides people…a fear of getting destroyed in a meeting, getting fired…”

You might wonder, If they were good at their jobs why would they have fear? Or, How bad could the fear really be? Or, Maybe those employees are insecure–maybe they have a complex.

These aren’t the right questions. When you—or someone you know—feels fear, it is very likely real and there are traceable causes. Running away is not the only answer for employees, and it should not be an acceptable response by a leader or manager, whose employees look to her for leadership.

Semler has radical ideas about managing a firm in today’s environment. With a 2% employee turnover rate at Semco over the past 25 years, his strategies and implementations are worth looking at.

Here are a few points he makes in his presentation at MIT’s Innovative Leader Series in 2005:

  • Most business plans are wishful thinking
  • Growth is overrated for companies
  • Admit what you don’t know
  • Make meetings voluntary
  • Do nothing sometimes
  • We need democratic workplaces
  • Balance your life

Fear is not gone from the American company. Far from it. But the writing is on the wall. Now—in this time of deep global recession, when firms must do everything possible to stay alive—is a good time to take a few minutes to think about what’s going on where you work.

If you’re a manager, now’s a good time to look in the mirror. It’s a good time to squeeze out the fear if it’s there. Ask for help if you don’t know how.

Company’s that tolerate fear will lose their best people and customers sooner or later.

Give it a listen. Please send comments if this strikes a chord.


© 2009 John Dila