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The Leader’s Choice: Recognizing fear in the workplace

Nurturing an innovative culture is strategic for organizations to compete today. But many business leaders still use leadership tactics that are rooted in fear, which dampen natural human instincts to be creative.

This free-flowing conversation between New Kind Director of Brand Exploration Elise Dorsett and Chairman David Burney explores three telltale signs of fear common to organizations that have prioritized efficiency over creativity.

You’ll learn that once you can recognize these signals in your company culture, you can take steps toward a more mindful, open, and curious leadership style—fostering the innovative culture you need to compete.

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Recognizing fear in the workplace


Elise Dorsett: My name is Elise Dorsett and I’m the Director of Brand Exploration here at New Kind. I’m here with my colleague, David Burney, who’s the chairman of New Kind. He’s also a leadership coach. He coaches emerging leaders and executives. We’ve been exploring this concept called, “The Leader’s Choice,” which is the choice to lead with openness and curiosity as opposed to opting to lead with fear-based techniques. This is so fascinating. First I want to ask David, if you could just help us understand where our traditional concepts of leadership come from.

David Burney: If you think about, Elise, the times we live in, where there’s so much change and so much disruption—whether it’s in our professional lives or our private lives—it’s easy to be afraid. Honestly, over the last several centuries we’ve seen leaders who have used that to great advantage because it worked. It worked for machine-age sort of companies where the strategy was to make sure that people had a task, they knew what they were doing, and efficiency really was the high strategic need.

As a leader, you need to recognize that innovation and creativity follow the laws of physics. A body in motion tends to stay in motion.

Today, as more and more organizations recognize that they need to be creative and more innovative, they have to look at different methods, because those old fear-based methods that worked for machine-age organizations will really kill your efforts to build an innovative or a creative organization. Innovation today is more strategic than simply efficiency—so building an organization that works in that way becomes your goal if you’re the leader.

ED: So let’s say I want to build an innovative culture. I want to build an innovative organization. How can I make this transition if you feel like you’re still steeped in some of those old traditional forms of leadership? How can you become a more open, mindful leader?

DB: Well, first it’s a choice. It’s simply a choice. That’s why we’re talking about it as The Leader’s Choice. That you have to be mindful and self-aware that the way you have been leading people—perhaps in your previous life or in a previous role—are really rooted in old ideas. They’re more mythology than they are true today, at least in terms of being effective.

So first you must recognize it’s a choice. Then you begin to decide, “Am I going to lead a traditional organization and am I going to be using fear as part of what I use to do so? Or am I going to be leading in more open, transparent, curious methods?” That’s the key.  Fear roots so deeply and it’s on such a level that we aren’t aware of it. We rationalize it. We think we’re in control or we rationalize it and think that, “I’m professional.” Right?

ED: Yes.

DB: The reality is that it’s a much messier kind of thing to lead a creative organization. But you have to get in there and find those places where fear lives. To be self-aware about how you react to it and then root that out. Work hard to get that out of the organization.

ED: How do you know if there’s fear? I mean you said it’s something that we cover up. It’s something that we rationalize. It’s something that we don’t recognize. So how can you recognize signs of fear in your organization?

DB: Yeah. Well that’s a great question and maybe later we’ll talk about recognizing in yourself because it’s very difficult. But in your organization I think you can look for three things to start with:

First, do you have highly competitive people in your organization?

Often that’s a great thing in an organization. It feels great. They can be very high performers. But are they having a negative effect on the organization itself by wanting to win every interaction, even at all costs? There are people in those organizations and again, if they’re high performers, that’s hard. But you have to either figure out how to help them change or they could kill the innovation and creativity in your organization’s culture. Also in that same mold is people who like to play office politics. If you see a lot of office politics going by, as a leader you have to understand how to mitigate that and work around it. Again, if you don’t reward that behavior you have to reward people who work together and who are open and collaborate. These also can be very powerful players in your organization. Those are two, which I really look at in a similar way.

Second, signs that your people are disengaged, apathetic or burned out.

That’s a sign that they haven’t bought into your vision. They don’t believe. They may have been through this many times before. Maybe with you, maybe not with you as a leader. But when they don’t believe, you’ve got to take that head-on too, and you’ve got to begin to be curious about that—what’s going on there.

Third, is when people lack the willingness to take a risk.

Taking a risk is clearly a part of being innovative. People who’ve worked in bureaucracies or machine organizations learn quickly not to stick their head up. Nobody wants to be the mole in a game of whack-a-mole. So you know, conforming, keeping your head down, being quiet—you can survive a lot in the corporate world by doing that. That’s maybe great for them, keeping their job, although they’re usually pretty miserable in that role. But if you’re trying to build an innovative organization, again, that’s death to your organization.

ED: I’m thinking about some of the ideation sessions, the collaborative sessions we’ve had at New Kind, and how the person who throws out the first idea, it’s normally not the right idea, but it gets the creative conversation started. It can be scary to be the first to chime in.

DB: It takes courage to say something that’s kind of either dumb or obvious or silly. In a corporate organization where everybody’s professional and everything’s under control and somebody says something that’s kind of silly or whatever, it’s easy to be dismissed in that place. But as a leader, you need to recognize that innovation and creativity follow the laws of physics. A body in motion tends to stay in motion. People who are willing to say things that are obvious— are willing to say things that are silly or dumb or naïve— these people are golden in that.

As a leader, you have to learn how to protect and how to value that, how to reward that kind of behavior because it gets conversation going. Whereas people who are highly competitive, who won’t have the idea and once they’ve had an idea, by God they’re going to fight and go tooth and nail and office politics and whatever to make sure that their idea wins. Right? Maybe they are great but they’re not always great, and they kill innovation for everybody else. This is the challenge. Right? It’s very challenging. It’s more complex. It’s very different than leading a machine organization. But it can be extremely rewarding. It’s a very human thing to do. It can drive a highly competitive advantage for your organization.

ED: Great. Thank you so much. If you want to check out our first conversation, it’s a great precursor to some of the concepts that we’ve been talking about, diving a little bit deeper into The Leader’s Choice, please do that. In our next conversation we are going to explore a specific exercise you can do with your team that fosters open decision making—it gets everybody involved in the process. Keep an eye out for that post in the coming weeks.

DB: Thank you.

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