Fear exists in many forms and levels within Corporate America and in our daily lives. It can be healthy, and it can be debilitating. It can never be eradicated completely, but it can be managed and mitigated. It steers some of us away from damaging, unethical and illegal choices. But it is also the disease that infects millions of workers across the world, standing in the way of continuous improvement, cost containment, total quality, sustainability, and - quite simply - happiness.
Most of us with over ten years of business experience have worked in businesses or micro-environments that are at some level governed by fear. Deming was concerned mostly about the kind of fear that prevents the average worker from finding out how to do the job correctly. He worried about the fear that prevents us from asking questions, from rocking the boat, from suggesting new ideas, from challenging the status quo.
Many supervisors feel threatened by those employees who ask too many questions. Managers can be vindictative, and can evoke punitive measures which impact employees' lives on the most personal of levels. Promotions are denied. Raises are vetoed. Negative stress is taken home at the end of the day. Family problems arise: addiction, depression, and even domestic violence can result. So, in spirit of self-preservation, the employees fall into the trap of keeping their collective heads down, lest they be shot off by the tyrant down the hall. Even when new, enlightened managers come on to the scene, the culture can be difficult or impossible to change. Fear becomes ingrained into the business. When asked about the purpose behind certain business processes, employees will answer in typical fashion: "it's always been done that way", or "that's the way the Boss told me to do it".
I was introduced to the management-by-fear school of thought very early in my career. I remember the boss screaming at me because an item was out of place on the shelf. It was not the End of the World, but he made me feel as if it was. I remember coming in to work with a sick feeling in my stomach every day, worried that soemthing would go wrong, and that I would suffer more humiliation. I promised myself that if I were ever promoted to a management position, that I would never treat my employees that way. I would respect them as intelligent human beings - as adults who had a contribution to make. I hope that I lived up to that promise as a manager. But I did continue to encounter tryants throughout my career - they tended to be the managers who were successful in the short term, and dismal failures in the long term who left behind them a trail of destruction and shattered lives.
Dr. Deming argued that people need, ultimately, to feel secure. The word secure comes from Latin roots meaning "without fear." Employees ought to feel "not afraid to express ideas, not afraid to ask questions."
"Fear takes a horrible toll. Fear is all around, robbing people of their pride, hurting them, robbing them of a chance to contribute to the company."
The enlightened manager will encourage participation and input. She will foster an environment of learning and interaction. She will be self-confident. She will put the welfare of the company ahead of her personal aspirations. She will be a team leader. She will solicit opinions from her employees, and treat those opinions with respect. She will entrench processes that allow suggestions for continuous improvement initiative. She will know how to answer questions about methods and procedures, or will know how to get the answers. She will take great joy in seeing her employees grow, get promoted, and get raises in pay. She will build enduring teams of people who love their work. She will succeed.
Do whatever it takes to drive fear out of your organization. It is a long and difficult path, but it can be done.