As managing our brain leads to deeper understanding I’m encouraging you to read mindfully. The questions below, plus any you may feel are relevant will help you to read the blog whilst considering what the ideas mean to you. Doing this creates greater insight.
What is HR’s role in creating the culture?
What is the level of fear or threat in your organisation?
How much are employees trusted and empowered?
How well are HR role modelling a fear free culture?
Arguably organisations to date have thrived on creating a culture of compliance based on fear. People are told what to do, processes describe how work must be done and much of HR’s role is about creating those processes and policing adherence to them. (I exaggerate slightly to make the point but for many in HR this is the reality) Leaders still mainly lead through command and control despite years of talk and training about different leadership styles and why they work better. Neuroscience is the latest disciple to provide evidence that humans operate better in an environment which releases positive emotions. But we have a natural bias to notice threat and are more action oriented in the face of negative emotions. Basically this threat or negative bias keeps us alive and even today it plays a role in keeping us safe. When we respond emotionally to threat we can be said to experience fear. This maybe real, someone about to punch you or imagined, you worry your boss doesn’t like your work.
Whether real or imagined your thinking, feelings and behaviour are all affected, because when you experience fear, you automatically focus on avoiding the threat. Fear is a signal to act and deal with the threat, but if no action is taken, the body remains in a state of readiness to act.
In a recent HR and Neuroscience breakfast club meeting one of our participants observed that fear is a common state in his organisation. Indeed he went on to argue, quite forcefully, that the fear in the organisation ensured people worked hard and stayed on their toes and that fear gave them a competitive edge. But research from neuroscience is clear, threat results in suboptimal processing in the executive brain areas which deal with activities like planning, setting goals and rational thought. Negative emotions like fear tend to increase physiological arousal, narrow focus and restrict behaviour.
Fear based organisations suffer from power games played at the top and powerlessness at lower levels, from infighting and bureaucracy, from endless meetings and a never-ending change and cost-cutting programmes. Author Frederic Laloux says in his book, Reinventing Organisations that deep inside, we long for soulful workplaces, for authenticity, community, passion, and purpose. To achieve this we need to create cultures where leaders have the courage to let go of control and trust people to perform. Whilst leaders will need to model this HR need to support it and in my view entice leaders to see the benefits and give them the skills to make the change. Arguably those coming up the talent pipeline see this as the natural way to lead but we must make sure they have the skills and incentives to stick with it.
Some resources for HR are a number of books advocating a more positive culture and how to achieve it. The Fear-Free Organisation takes a neuroscience approach laying out why fear makes organisation’s unproductive and ineffective places to work. It’s an interesting and intriguing concept: to create an organisation that is fear free from the perspective of the brain. The book does a good job of highlighting that a culture of fear is destructive to both people and business, and offers ways to eliminate fear based on an understanding of how the brain and nervous system works. In essence it is advising how to create a business built on trust. In making the case for a fear free organisation the authors provide an accessible introduction to how our thinking and emotions can be integrated to create energy and cooperation rather than fear. In my view the book could have more practical insights about how leaders and HR can achieve the fear free organisation but it makes a good start. (The chapter bashing HR's role in business is unnecessary and a departure from the style of the rest of the book).
The elements that make up a fear-free organisation are all in the HR remit; hiring and retention, work practices, policy on performance management and reward and of course the leadership model for the organisation. And surely HR’s role is to maximise the ability of people to contribute. Which as we have seen in a few examples of organisation, is accomplished when they can tap into the whole person and not compromise major parts of the brain's ability.
So arguably one of the future, and current roles of HR is to be changing the culture and leadership style away from fear to one based on joy, excitement, trust and energy. And how much more fulfilling that would be than policing process!
Agreed, and... I was trying to formulate a response to this but I thought these slides from Hilary Scarlett at the Agile Business Conference today support Jan's case very well - fear leads to a threat state and reduces performance and ability to change.Yes, people need to be hyper aware of the competitive context they operate within - and they need to feel resourced to deal with this. Strong networks and communities is one way of providing this support.BTW, I do have possibly similar concerns about Certainty - too much certainty makes people feel comfortable, but actually in an environment which is very uncertain, this is just going to reduce people's ability to cope flexibly and appropriately to respond to unplanned events.
I'd be interested in other people's thoughts...
I started my OD work in the eighties and early nineties when the work of W Demming and the Total Quality Movement was in vogue. One of his points was that one should “drive out all fear” so that people can do their best work. It also was considered good practice to drive out fear so that people would be honest, not hide problems and share ideas and knowledge. Broadly this is good thinking but what it ignores are the real threats to all organisations from outside whether that be competition or from government policy. So, my one view is that much of the HR stuff about fear free cultures and organisational health are a bit naive and inward looking. Most private sector organisations do not last long and most of this is due to them becoming too inward looking and complacent. As such, many of the great organisations have had a similar narrative that they are not far from catastrophe with all the consequences that flow from that. At Intel it was summarised by only the paranoid survive and at Microsoft, being only 2 years from failiure. So, I believe HR has to help construct the shared narrative that ensures people are fearful about the survival of the institution and that they need to always think about the external threats to them. Internally, there should be some fear that doing a poor job has consequences. Each of these strategies has obvious risks. It’s HR’s job to mitigate these.
Some great points here Jan and sorry it took me a while to review and reflect on them (I'll leave you to decide whether I was being mindful or just not attending sufficiently). And yes, I think the idea of social threat in particular is such an important one for understanding why organisations need to be more social in nature. Eg despite all the recent insights on performance management and why we need to do this HR / management practice differently, it's still the evidence around status and the effect this can have on people which to me is the most powerful factor in believing that we've developed something that doesn't just need improvement but that is simply not fit for purpose. I'm sure that as we examine ways to reduce all the different fears which can arise at work we'll identify many different processes and practices we need to change. Please do share more as you get the time to do so!