With so many potential leaders yet very little innovation, what is holding leaders back? Restrictive policies and destructive cultural practices, rooted in a mutual lack of trust in top-down models essentially lock would-be innovators into a state of fear.
Though we often see these illustrated as the butt of cheesy office jokes in movies and on the web, they are real and have the uncanny ability to stifle innovation. The institution of policies designed to control members of organizations, often upheld by their capacity to jeopardize one's job, are perhaps the greatest (de)motivator. I define restrictive policies as rules that have little to no relevance to the task at hand. Some examples of these restrictive policies: impractical dress codes, "long arm" policies that bleed over into personal lives, rules that exist simply because they always have- just to name a few.
Destructive Cultural Practices
There are two sets of rules: the ones that are written, and those that aren't. Both influence the very fabric of the organization, yet the latter can become quite insidious given its stealthy nature. The new reality of business is that we can no longer afford to do things simply because it benefits a few, "seems cool" or "is what we have always done." While a sense of survival and tradition have their place in fostering innovation, letting it go unchecked and unshared by the whole is a recipe for disaster.
I have encountered this barrier across various workplaces wherein:
- Salespeople were required to tuck in their shirts until they reach a predetermined level of sales. Employees that protested were "talked to" to ensure compliance.
- Call center agents were not allowed to coordinate their lunches for fear of a mass lunch exodus that would cripple productivity.
- Inside a fortune 500 where "low-level" managers were stripped of their legitimate power to manage operations yet were expected to uphold the wishes of upper management in their stead.
- Workstations were ordered from least to most productive
- Seniority determined relative power and ability to suggest changes. Those that had been around the longest were granted an audience while the newer ones were ignored.
- A manager viewed his development and termination strategy in terms of "it's either them or me."
My question to all of those that upheld these various policies was a simple, "Why?" yet the response was always quite complex. In general it boiled down to two concepts- Fear and trust. What's more, each of these organizations expressed a need for more initative and free-thinking employees and leaders.
It's easy to write these places off as broken systems or relics of the past, but I think there is something important to learn from them. Organizational culture, after its inception, essentially creates itself. Meaning, those characteristics that are displayed are more likely to become stronger than those that are not. I propose that "fearlock" occurs when a rule or cultural facet extends past its maturity date. The life cycle looks something like this:
1. Original purpose
2. Sustained practice
3. Assignment of value & general application
4. Loss of relevance & departure from purpose
5. Perceived obligatory maxim
In stage one, the intention and target is clear. This may be a legitimate rule to serve a specific purpose. Stage two occurs if the rule is beneficial to whoever devises it, it sticks around. Stage three; long-surviving rules now distanced in time and perhaps some relevance are seen as indispensible "tools," the underlying meaning is drawn out and applied to other areas that are perceived to need "fixing." Stage three is where things begin to go south. Given enough time, business needs will change, but culture is slow, so the practice in question lags well behind the rate of change. In stage four, the practice is, for lack of a better term, a zombie- upheld for no reason other than comfort in its existence. We see a jump from a rational decision to one based on personal need in the guise of rationality. Stage five is the proverbial nail in the coffin to innovation as it is the antithesis of change. It is characterized in the terms "I'm only supposed to..." "I can only..." "i can get in trouble if..." and "we just don't do...".
Fearlock operates in a circular fashion. Line-level operators are afraid of breaking, let alone questioning, the rules for fear of their jobs. Managers are afraid of departing from the set path (though they may have beneficial alternatives in mind) because the company "just does/doesn't do X" or their hands are tied. Leaders are afraid of departing from the tradition of the organization for fear of losing their constituency and so play it safe in search of quick returns. In return, operations may suffer from the psychological effects on the workforce due to prolonged anxiety; managers operating in their "lane" enforce existing rules in an attempt to gain control of the perceived lack of initiative or motivation. Leaders, in response to filtered information enable managers to stay the course of action and strategize contingencies under the assumption that this is the only reality for their organization.
In my interpretation, I saw a lack of mutual trust. Employees assumed managers were plotting against them. Managers assumed that employees were taking advantage of them. Leaders assumed that managers were incompetent and employees had no feelings. In a system such as this, no one feels free to be a creative human being, instead, people are forced into a box and expected to like it. In reality, all this practice does is create a sense of resentment and adverse behaviors- the type that confirm suspicions based on mistrust; further exacerbating the problem. If everyone is looking for a way out of "the box" when do they have time to innovate? Why would they?
On the surface, the solution to this seems obvious, foster greater communication, create a safe environment for conflict, reevaluate process methodologies, ect... The problem is, it is rarely pursued and culture change is pretty much a 50/50 chance affair. When I asked one leader why he continues this behavior after acknowledging it and agreeing that it, in his own words "sucks," he stated "I would love to change. By the numbers it makes sense, but it's too risky, this is what our whole business is based on. I can't just let the whole thing fail."
Observing the workforce of the leader mentioned above, I noticed that, in the absence of "enforcers" there was a distinct pattern of failure and reboot that emerged both quantitatively (sales) and behaviorally (cooperation). In instances of prolonged absence of authority figures, operations and employee cooperation would screech to a halt, bottom out, then recover and resume with the added bonus of greater cooperation and more creative problem solving. During this time, many restrictive rules were ignored. Upon the return of an enforcer, productivity and cooperation would again drop and recover at a slower rate than the initial trough.
From that experience, I realized that the issue was not one of ignorance but of practicality and opportunity. I have this solution: Create a method of controlled and systematic failure that halts the drivers of fear and provides an opportunity to ditch the unnecessary rules and switch from fear-based direction to trust based cooperation.