Company Culture

5 Tips For Killing 'Feardom' to Unleash Your Employees' Brilliance

5 Tips For Killing 'Feardom' to Unleash Your Employees' Brilliance
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Thirteen years ago, I almost left Widen, the digital media solutions company I lead today. At the time, I sold and marketed printing services, and another company invited me to run its marketing program with what appeared to be full autonomy. I accepted the job, eager to start the next chapter in my career. But then I had a change of heart and stayed at Widen. Why?

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I'd told our chief technology officer about my job opportunity, and he'd said, “Why don’t you just do those things around here?” My response was, “Oh, I can do that?” Clearly, I had been afraid to propose ideas to upper management. Those managers hadn't done anything to make me afraid, but I was caught up in my own assumptions about the corporate chain of command.

So, inspired by the CTO, I pitched a long-term plan to our CEO. “All right,” he said in response. “I’ll give you enough rope to hang yourself.”

I didn’t think much about that veiled threat; instead, I focused on this chance to make Widen great. In reflection though, that statement constituted a prime example of corporate “feardom”: an oxymoronic culture in which experiments are tolerated only if they work and opinions are tolerated as long as they conform to the boss’s viewpoint. Under feardom, work is unpredictable; you’re never sure which opinions, ideas and actions will get you chastised or fired.

But, here's the point: To unleash the brilliance of your employees, you must kill feardom.

Lucky for me, the plan started working and the CEO tolerated my many mistakes along the way. Seven years later, in 2009, I was named CEO of Widen. In the interim, we had created an awesome team and built software technology that catapulted Widen from the print to the digital age.

After six years of experiments, failures and discoveries, Widen today is certified by WorldBlu as a "Freedom-Centered Workplace," but by no means are we perfect. I’ve learned that freedom is not something you proclaim; it's something you institute through training. Nor is freedom "do whatever you want"; freedom is collaborative excellence within a business structure that serves employees and customers alike and is constantly being refined. 

To achieve freedom, you have to build an environment that transforms creative expression and experimentation into habit. Were I to repeat my process implementation, here’s how I would do it:

1. Start from the top.

Train your leadership team. If leaders don’t know what freedom means, they can’t create it. You can design your own program or find outside assistance, which is what Widen eventually did. Training gives your leadership team a shared mindset, vocabulary and set of processes. This is crucial because feardom thrives on inconsistency. If one manager shuns new ideas and intimidates employees, he or she will thwart the rest of your efforts.

2. Match your physical space to your intentions.

In 2012, we converted our office to an open floor plan. My only regret is that we didn’t do it sooner. Cubicles, long hallways, separate departments and closed doors stifle free conversation and perpetuate fear. The cubicle says, “Everything that concerns you is in this 5 X 5-foot space. Anything outside is none of your damn business.” Likewise, private office doors say, “Beyond this door, you will meet a person whose opinions matter more than your own.”

Today, I sit at a pod of four tables in a 10,000-square-foot room, and so do other executives. I feel more receptive to new ideas in this environment. After all, I’m just another person serving my coworkers and our customers.

3. Practice, practice, practice.

When people visit at a gym for the first time, you can’t expect them to dead-lift 400 pounds. Likewise, you can’t expect people coming from a culture of feardom to suddenly speak fearlessly. Standup meetings, fireside chats, workshops and other public forums are good practice, but I suggest you up the stakes.

For instance, an employee of ours recently noticed some issues with how we've been receiving customer feedback, so we found a book on the topic, Thanks for the Feedback, by Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen. I've asked employees to sign up for one chapter each. They have to read and present their chapter to the rest of the company. For those who hate public presentations, we've provided a speaking coach to help them prepare.

The presentations start next week and will give people a chance to exercise their voices. To support a freedom-based culture, people must practice speaking up, and leaders must practice listening.

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4. The CEO owns the most difficult conversations.

As you establish a freedom-based culture at your workplace, you'll need to have uncomfortable conversations about the issues you don’t have answers to. One employee asked, for example, “We don’t look very diverse around here; what can we do about that?” If you’re the CEO, those conversations belong to you, and you need to be vulnerable.

Above all else, listen. You’re not being attacked; a chat about diversity is not an opportunity to defend your record. Instead, tell employees how grateful you are that they've raised an uncomfortable subject, and propose how you might both take action from there. 

5. Prepare to handle baggage.

Habits travel with employees coming from feardom cultures. For example, one of our recent hires asked a coworker, “Is it okay to send this email to a customer?” Her past boss had insisted on reading every single email she sent to customers. So, she came to view this level of micromanagement as normal, and it made her doubt her own abilities.

To manage cultural baggage, we started pairing new hires with veteran co-workers who can serve as guides. These guides answer cultural questions and help new employees learn the unwritten rules of life at Widen. 

What’s Your Legacy?

Some business leaders cling to feardom because they believe it’s the only way to create a legacy. Today, I would argue that companies where employees are afraid to share their genius and question assumptions will hardly be remembered. Personally, I want to build a legacy of employee well-being that advances our organizational democracy to better serve our customers. Remember, I still have "enough rope" to hang myself.

Related: Creating a Company Culture Where Employees Never Leave