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Leaders: Beware the fear factor

Scenario #1: Sweat

The CEO of your company summons you to her office. “Is this a high performance organization?” she asks.

You start to sweat.

It's a tough question, despite being strongly recommended by a CEO in a recent newspaper interview.

Apart from scaring people, the question is flawed by its yes-no form. It will yield little info.

You wonder what the CEO’s really looking for. Maybe she’s implying this could be a high-performing organization—if only it weren’t for you.

How to answer???

“Yes!” you say, going with enthusiasm, while ignoring the fact that many of the company’s products don’t work, smell bad, and appear to be mildly carcinogenic.

Wrong answer. The CEO, it turns out, was looking for honesty.

Scenario #2: No sweat.

The other day I heard about a newly hired, 20-something-year-old at a large insurance company who, during her first week, did something fearless.

She called up the CEO and asked if she could stop by. Said she wanted to get a feel for the company, and where it was going.

Intrigued, the CEO said yes.

But her supervisor didn't know about the meeting till later. He was furious. "I've been at this company for over 10 years," he said. "I've never even met the CEO."

You could argue that the new hire was naive, that she learned an important lesson about org. politics and the chain of command, and that she'll never do anything like this again.

Fine, but what's the cost to the organization?

The cost is fear.

Years ago, consultant Tom Peters popularized "management by walking around." He urged managers to get out of the office, ask questions, and find out what's really going on.

Great advice, except for one thing: Most people, unlike that new hire, are reluctant to speak truth to power.

Tip: Don’t underestimate fear.

Before you ask a tough question, lessen the fear. Disclose something personal, disclose a vulnerability, or, at the very least—this is key—disclose why you're asking.

© Copyright 2011 Paul Hellman. All rights reserved.

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