Fear At the Top

The fact of the matter is that we have burned out, mental health challenged, actively disengaged and unhappy employees.

It is so pervasive and monumental in particular now, in the wake of the pandemic and the midst of heat another war that it’s a miracle any enterprise gets enough productivity out of their mistreated employees to even be functional. 

No one has bad intentions. There is no overall evil force that derives pleasure from employees being unhappy, this is not anyone’s fault. Sure, there are leaders, people and departments that can and should do better. Not work harder but be truer, more courageous, more willing to challenge each other and rethink everything. But they don’t not because they are lazy or malicious but because of fear.

They would disagree, they’d say they are other things holding them back from moving the needle significantly and that’s why there is no EQ practice, no measuring of happiness and high performance, no true feedback loop and no exploration of the team dynamic and the individual needs leave alone any definitive clarity on D&I and so on. They would say they are too busy; overextended; not supported by their peers; putting out fires; in competition; doing things as they always have; not wanting to rock the boat; burned out themselves; or stopped by “the organisation”; but the truth is each and every one of those can be stripped away and what we are left with at the most fundamental of levels is just fear. 

Fear at the top. Fear at the organisational level. Institutionalised fear. 

  • Fear of job loss
  • Fear of status drop
  • Fear of image loss
  • Fear of the unknown

At times it seems that the higher we go in an organisation the more of the fear we find. Certainly the more impression management (the “dark side of Psychological Safety where we are afraid of not looking ignorant, negative, incompetent or intrusive and therefore we don’t speak up not to incur that risk).

In boards, in top leadership “teams”, in working groups there’s so much more image protection that it becomes impossible to create progress together. 

We spoke about the lack of Psychological Safety at the top many times before:

5 Tips to Build Psychologically Safe Leadership Teams

Leadership Teams Are Not Psychologically Safe Because They Don’t Exist

Leaders Need An Impression Management Detox

You Are Not Alone: Teams Are The New Leaders

FitForVUCA: The Leaders With a Chance To Change

Emotionally Intelligent Team Leaders Not Mindless Execs And Middle Managers

It is a serious issue that disallows companies to reduce their HumanDebt because it means the working groups at the top are simply not a team at all, much less one that has enough safety to be blunt, invested, brave and therefore willing to tackle the big tickets. If you were a fly on the wall in leadership meetings they are mostly posturing and devoid of any real communication leave alone ideation or co-creation. A collection of well wrapped-up press releases and status reports about how amazing their respective list of achievements is. 

There’s nary a time when they co-create or even think through a problem together. Or a time where there’s a discussion around what looks like an honest issue. No constructive conflict or hard-hitting truths. Or any time that any of them stands up to call out the many naked emperors parading around “hold up a minute, that can’t be as rosy as that because we know what it really looks like on the ground and it’s unrelated to the perfect picture you’re trying to paint, let’s figure out how to get it to the utopia you describe”. 

Why is that? Because they’re afraid. Because they don’t have any problem-solving practice together and no real true communication channel based on real openness, a thirst for experimentation and freedom to create together. 

Let’s face it - they don’t have a team. They have a working group maybe but most often even that term is too generous and they really just have a live-status-reporting-newsletter. 

Between the lack of team and implicit lack of PS and the fact that they feel the need for the monumental shift to servant leadership but don’t know how to approach it, is it any wonder that you don’t have the big truths that make them think up solutions and give organisational permission for the human work? It isn’t, after all, if they admitted the people work is the cornerstone they’d have to do it themselves and that is terrifying.

All the pent up impostor syndrome at the top is simply paralysing. Any sudden move could result in a dreaded imaginary unmasking to the terrified exec. Any discussion about regrouping and investing in teams would mean they have to make one themselves and what if then they would then be called to be vulnerable and show bravery as well? 

We need big moves, true and major change. All status quo questioned. All things on the table to be examined and changed if need be. We need honest audits and much more courageous leaders. We need new blood or new attitudes. 

Both sides of the equation are at fault. The IT side and the HR side. At fault for the gap and the lack of true cooperation that only grows the HumanDebt and exacerbates the fears. 

We need tech and ops leaders saying “We have to have the people side on point - if you won’t get it right for us, we will. We can not deliver these products with people who are unhappy, it simply won’t work, we can’t make things as fast as this, with them being afraid to experiment. We can’t get anywhere if we don’t tend to the team dynamic and to how everyone feels. Command and control won’t work anymore. Who’s task is it to do the heavy lifting on these? Happy for it to be ours if need be.

We need HR leaders coming in and saying “Dear org, take all the admin away I want to really help and do the hard work, we have to shake the disconnect with tech and we have to walk away from antiquated waterfall ways that slow us down and make us deliver nothing of value since we can never match their agile speed. We need the time and openness to understand agility and the speed of technology and translate that into the needs of the team and of the individuals” or at least saying “We’ll stick to the legal and admin but here are the tools for every department and team do some of the human work and we need you to do it all the time now

Frankly, both sides need a whole other kind of “Let’s get real about fear” for the leadership “team” play. They would need one where enough truth serum had been ingested that it stops them from posturing and peacocking as usual, and instead makes them admit “What I am personally afraid of is that you lot think I’m less than and that stops me from bringing my most honest and authentic self” or even “I’m afraid to relate to you guys and to be invested enough so we start operating like a real team” or “My type of impostor syndrome is…” 

How marvellous would it be if all the posturing live-status-reporting-newsletter-groups that call themselves leadership "teams" in the world would truly become real teams? Found ways to be vulnerable with each other and then tackle all the big themes their fears previously kept them from doing? Clean up their HumanDebt. Truly psychologically safe, super high performing teams. At the top. Invested in our wellbeing and happiness.

Imagine that.

Related: The Zelensky Lesson