You don’t have to wait for your leaders to self-actualize to increase trust and reduce fear. At TANDBERG, people hit the empowerment gym for a regular workout of the “Player” muscle. When “Player” is strong, fear and hierarchy tend to stay low.
MIX Mavericks have put strong stakes in the ground on the topic of trust: John Mackey says you can’t build high trust organizations without love, Raj Sisodia says we should conceive of leadership as trusteeship. In both cases, we need—to use John Mackey’s words—self-actualized human beings to pull it off. The trouble with self-actualization is that it rarely happens overnight. More often than not, it’s a painstakingly long process that can take years or even decades depending on the individual’s starting position, the nature of the “slings & arrows” life throws his way and on the cognitive technologies he uses (if any).
So what can be done right now in organizations that don’t have an enlightened leader like John Mackey at the helm? This is a story about an attempt to maintain trust and entrepreneurial spirit and reverse a premature onset of fear in a fast growing high-tech company.
Increasing trust and reducing fear is rarely on the agenda in young companies where everyone knows each other, most people are friends, titles don’t mean much and decisions are made on the fly by people who have a valuable perspective to contribute. But things get trickier as companies grow. In the early 2000s, TANDBERG was fewer than 500 people and adding hundreds of new people every year (now the world’s leading manufacturer of telepresence and business video equipment – see another story “Soft R&D” for more background on the company). The company was in need of what most people inside it openly resented—organization, structure, processes. The first attempt to inject them led to a full-body rejection: The Board hired a professional CEO from a high tech company well regarded for it efficiency and effectiveness. As per his mandate, the new CEO focused on professionalizing the business and installed a clear chain of command (and control). A dramatic decay in trust started with the introduction of rigid decision making process that excluded people who were accustomed to being involved. As decisions were cascaded down the line, stripped bare of the discussions and reasons that led to them, they were triggering snowballs of subtle resistance. Fortunately, the desire to get back the “old” culture turned out to be stronger than the fear of speaking up. The CEO—despite his many useful contributions—did not stay in his role for long.
The CEO was gone but many new and old issues remained in the now 1,000+ organization. It was no longer possible for everybody to know everybody. Departmental boundaries were starting to calcify into silos that stopped people from asking questions outside the scope of their responsibility. Blaming was starting to rear its ugly head. It was all starting to add up to a slight but noticeable decline in the entrepreneurial spirit that powered the company since its conception. And that was the management’s biggest fear. Something needed to be done but what? Can you keep the organization flat and bubbling with entrepreneurial spirit, yet running like a well-oiled, effective and efficient machine? Can you keep your cake, and eat it, too?
One thing people at TANDBERG learned from selling technology is that technology alone is a necessary but often insufficient solution to make a real difference. You can have the best personal telepresence system on your desk or the best web 2.0 technology enabling your organization—that’s a great start but what people do with it and why will determine the mileage the organization will get out of that technology. Everybody at TANDBERG had access to video and could call up anybody inside TANDBERG at any time and from any place for a face-to-face conversation (presumably the best setup for a trust building conversation). But what would make people call up anybody, especially if that anybody is in another department, a person they have not met before or a person who happens to be an executive?
How organization is structured, how decisions are made, who the executives are—all of these things matter but so does what every person in the organization makes of these aspects of the organization. Do they judge it, decide it’s not their responsibility to fix things that are outside their responsibility and turn into the disgruntled and the disengaged? The big idea was to find a practical tool that could give every employee inside the company, including the management team, the language and the way to develop a different attitude to whatever was going on inside the company, a la “This is wrong or could be better and I am going to fix it even if it’s outside my responsibility.” We wanted nothing short of unconditional responsibility. From everyone.
That’s how the Player mindset came about. The original language and concept came from Fred Kofman’s “Conscious Business.” Player mindset, as opposed to Victim mindset, simply means taking on unconditional response-ability in any given situation as opposed to engaging in unconditional blaming. TANDBERG turned into a structured workout at the empowerment gym:
- When a new hire joins TANDBERG, they are first introduced to the Player mindset during the New Hire Workshop. That’s Player mindset for beginners. They learn to differentiate between Player and Victim first by sifting through dozens of statements picked out of real-life conversations that have happened inside TANDBERG (e.g., “I was not involved in this decision, so what do you want me to do?” “Of course we should get lower targets—we are in the middle of the recession!” “I don’t have time for this.”) Once they sort them into Player and Victim, they try to flex their own Player muscles by attempting to convert Victim statements into Player statements. It’s never as easy as it first seems.
- All “soft R&D” Labs (see “Soft R&D” story on the MIX) have an advanced version of the Player workout with content tailor made for the role. Leaders tend to get the most difficult work outs.
- Many large and small group interactions contain some version of a workout with the most up to date Victim content. This way people get to flex their muscles on the most pressing issues of the day.
As a result, everyone at TANDBERG has been through several Player workouts. With time, practice and encouragement, Player develops into a default mindset.
Challenge: The fear of being perceived as a Victim
For dramatic effect, the Player workout was initially introduced in black and white terms. Being a Player was obviously good and being a Victim was obviously bad. Things got less obvious as time went on. The culture of strong Players evolved to mean that under no circumstances it was acceptable to be a Victim, even for a moment or in the moment. But what about those cases where somebody has a valid point but cannot find a good way to transform their insight into the language of a Player in the moment and chooses to not share his or her perspective? The culture of strong Players produced a new form of fear, a fear of being perceived as a Victim.
Solution: The wisdom of Victim
Player mindset and workouts designed to develop it are practical ways to build self-empowerment. Leaders can do a lot to increase trust and reduce fear but so can the employees. When both sides take on unconditional responsibility, they start a positive feedback loop. Although TANDBERG’s organization is far from perfect and is always a work-in-progress, they have to a large extent managed to keep their cake, and eat it, too. They kept a fairly flat organizational structure without losing speed. People do call up the CEO, and the other way round. And when leaders “misbehave,” it’s perceived as a call for some Player action, rather than the call to join the Disengaged and the Disempowered.
Player mindset is easy to introduce and the introduction does not need to happen top down. In the early days of the introduction of Player mindset at TANDBERG, many new hires were heading back into teams that had never heard of Player mindset and were running some version of Cynics-Who-Lunch clubs. It was part of their mission not to join in, no matter what the manager was like, and to convert the club members into Players. Most new hires were happy to oblige and did with surprising amount of energy and commitment.
- Original language and frame of Player vs Victim: Fred Kofman's "Conscious Business"
- Workout design and design updates: Erika Ilves, Source Integral
- Running the workouts, feeding them with fresh TANDBERG content and pretty much everything else: Annicken Rod and Patricia Stang, TANDBERG