“What really frightens and dismays us is not external events themselves, but the way in which we think about them. It is not things that disturb us, but our interpretation of their significance.”
Fear is one of the biggest barriers to becoming fully engaged with work and life. It's one of a pair of strong emotions, along with love, and becomes one with us if we're not careful. Making mistakes is part of being human, errare humanum est said Cicero, to err is human. He then followed by saying that only fools persevere — insipientis nullius nisi, in errore perseverare.
The idea is that we want to learn from our mistakes, but we can hardly do that if we make none. In many organizations, the environment is such that people live in terror of making mistakes. Our desire to show an edited side of ourselves to the world is creating a broader culture where (apparent) perfection is the only acceptable thing.
This quest for appearances has widened the gap between ideal and reality. Because it's in depth that we find meaning, and it's the desire to be better that drives that search.
Many organizations send conflicting messages about what is acceptable. Innovation and engagement are two big themes, but we cannot have innovation without trying things and failing some (or a lot), and engagement doesn't thrive when things must be under control at all times.
The truth is that incentives are misaligned — we say one thing, reward another. In Creativity, Inc. Ed Catmull talks about the difficulty in dealing with failure and its ripple effects. If trying new things leads to making some mistakes, it also leads to leaps forward in understanding. We become better at not making the same mistakes again (or so we hope), and learn from the mistakes we make.
But if the rewards align with meeting deadlines, managers will likely pick the deadlines over letting people try new things. Maybe we do the experimenting when we have some slack… which tends to materialize so seldom to almost be never. Because meeting deadlines becomes the focus, more deadlines are the next logical step. It's a self-perpetuating loop.
Given these realities, managers typically want two things: (1) for everything to be tightly controlled, and (2) to appear to be in control.
But when control is the goal, it can negatively affect other parts of your culture.
A need for control unleashes a cascade of unintended consequences. People fail to act because they assume the manager wants to know first and if they're unavailable, there's no checking in. Or everyone tries to check in with their manager before meetings or making decisions, thus leading to temporary paralysis. Some managers feel more comfortable exploring many options before committing… we can see where this is going.
What's the answer? Catmull suggest getting managers more comfortable with problems and surprises. To help people reframe the way they think about the process and risks associated with screwing up, we need trust. It's not the opposite of fear, but trust is the appropriate tool.
Trust as antidote to fear
“He who does not trust enough will not be trusted.”
How we think about things is more important than the things themselves. Because it is our thinking that provides significance. When we trust someone, what we're saying is not that they'll always be without fault. What we are saying is that we have faith in their ability and willingness to fix a problem or find a solution. In other words, that they'll act to help make things better. That in itself creates more forward momentum and engagement than many tactics or gimmicks.
In essence, trust becomes the incentive. What do we do about trust? We earn trust by becoming or being trustworthy — when our actions are consistent. Ironically, we earn the most trust when we respond well to failure, which is the reason why the hero's journey is the most widely adopted and successful storytelling framework.
Part of building trust is being forthcoming on the challenges and opportunities rather than being coy. Sharing what is going on is a signal of trust. It also gives the people a sense of ownership over the information. Trust is reciprocal, when someone shows us trust, the brain triggers a reciprocal action.
Employees in high trust organizations are more productive, have more energy, and collaborate better with colleagues. Research reported in Trust Factor opens a window on how brain chemicals affect behavior, why trust gets squashed, and ways to consciously stimulate it by celebrating effort, sharing information, promoting ownership, and more. The results are people experience:
- 74% less stress
- 106% more energy at work
- 50% higher productivity
- 13% fewer sick days
- 76% more engagement
- 29% more satisfaction with their lives
- 40% less burnout
When someone trusts us we will do the work and are free to make decisions, the levels of key neurochemicals change in the direction that improves performance. Companies that trust their employees and give them power over their work tend to outperform those that don’t. This is becoming more relevant as new types of decentralized and virtual organizations emerge.
As Catmull says, “Your employees are smart; that's why you hired them. So treat them that way.” When we have the opportunity to discuss the thought process behind decisions, we focus on the solution rather than the motives behind them. We do know when someone is honest with us, and our response is to want to do our best to meet that trust with our skills and actions.