We examine the present in light of the past
so as to better understand the future.
John Maynard Keynes

* With apologies to Karl von Clausewitz

Drive out fear

This is a bit of a follow-up to my last post about fear and tolerance, and was prompted by my re-reading an old chapter on W. Edwards Deming - something I wrote for a book called Fifty Key Figures in Management some years ago. Deming is probably best known as one of the gurus of quality management, but his thinking ranged far beyond quality and right across the spectrum of management.

In his book Out of the Crisis, Deming set out ‘fourteen points’, his philosophy of management in general and quality management in particular. Reading down Deming’s list of points one sees familiar ideas such as ‘undertake continuous improvement’, ‘institute training on the job’ and ‘institute leadership’. Then comes one that makes you stop and blink. Point 8 is simply, ‘drive out fear’.

Deming did not believe that fear and coercion had any place in organisations. True quality, he said, could only be achieved by people who believed in quality as a goal and worked willingly towards it. Discipline, threats, bullying, arrogance and the setting up of some people over others, anything which disrupts the harmony of the workplace, these are all threats to quality; and in the absence of quality, there is a threat to the organisation itself.

I thought a lot about Deming while writing a chapter about fear in Managing for Success, my book that is now going through production at Bloomsbury. There is so much fear in organisations: fear of failure, fear of uncertainty, fear of the unknown, fear of ‘the other’, people who don’t fit in with our preconceived notions of how the world should be and therefore represent a threat. Sometimes fear masters an organisation completely and a defensive culture of ‘protect and survive’ becomes rooted.

In The Republic, Plato uses the metaphor of people sitting in a cave, unable to see the outside world; all they are aware of is shadows as other people pass to and fro by the mouth of the cave. When taken out of the cave and into the real world, they become so frightened of what they see that they flee back into the cave and stay there, preferring the shadows of illusion to reality.

In business that can be a very damaging mentality, and yet it is all too common. Fear of the unknown, for example, is one of the reasons why we adopt increasingly complicated metrics for almost everything, in the mistaken belief that numbers never lie. ‘Not unless the spreadsheet says so’, becomes the mantra. And if it turns out we make the wrong decision; well no matter, it wasn’t our fault. We followed the rules, we read the numbers. (I ran across some interesting research which concluded that 94 per cent of all spreadsheets surveyed had some form of error in them – so guess what, numbers do lie.)

The answer to fear is not numbers, but courage. Don’t let the numbers rule you; follow what your own experience and wisdom tell you. You’ll make mistakes, everyone does; but you will probably make fewer than you will by slavishly following the numbers. Have courage, and have faith in yourself.

Deming was right, we need to drive out fear. We need to start by driving it out of ourselves.

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Adi Gaskell commented on
Management Consultancy

Pradee commented on
Oh, no, not another book on management!

Laurie commented on
Another one bites the dust - reflecting on my new book on management failures