Fear Freezes the Free Mind Factor: Finding the Path to a Culture of Helping


By Doug Turner

What does the free mind factor bring to work? Quite simply, everything.

However, it thrives only in certain situations or environments—typically characterized by creativity, innovation, collaboration, originality, and lots of new cool ideas; you get the idea. All of these words relate to the ability and willingness to make new things happen that have and bring value.

We all want this, and we are all “free” citizens, but we all know it doesn’t happen often enough. Why not? In a word, fear.

Fear Creates Turtles, Tigers and Worse
What does fear have to do with it? When we are afraid, we tend to do one or both of two things. The first, and perhaps most common, but less obvious, is to “turtle.”  That is, we pull our heads, arms and legs into our shell to protect ourselves from whatever it is, especially when we don’t know what it is.

This has the desired effect of protecting us, perhaps, but the problem with a turtle in this position is that it can’t move or accomplish anything.  This shows up as disinterest, apathy, doing the “9 to 5” and nothing more, silence at staff meetings, etc—obviously not conducive to achieving the desired results.

The alternate behavioural response that might present itself is to attack like a cornered tiger or just be overly aggressive in order to appear formidable. This will show up as the perennial naysayer who is critical of everything and not supportive of anybody. These people won’t actively contribute to the objectives of any team or organization, just criticize when things go wrong.

Even worse is the self-serving sneaky manipulator who will endeavour to sabotage the ideas of others. Unfortunately, we have all seen too many of these people and read about them in books like Brag! The Art of Tooting Your Own Horn Without Blowing It by Peggy Klaus, in which she describes how to promote yourself without appearing to be one of “those people.”

Prevailing Fear of “Not Enough”
Where does fear come from in the “free” world? At the most basic level we are afraid whenever we feel there is “not enough”—of the good stuff like money, recognition, praise, advancement, rewards, camaraderie, etc.

We feel insecure, and in the absence of concrete evidence to the contrary, we will generate rumours, speculation, gossip, and hearsay to make ourselves feel better by making others feel the as badly as we do.  This is a downward spiral to nowhere.  Again, not the desired result.

Innovation Integrally Linked to Environment
Let’s go back to the free mind factor we all agree is necessary. We say that a company has to be innovative to be successful. This happens at two levels. The first and most obvious is the “grand” level where noteworthy visible creations happen. These can be product designs that become best sellers, processes that revolutionize internal operations, business ideas that really take off, breakthrough methods of advertising that result in memorable commercials and the like. These are all very significant, they get a lot of attention and much gets written about them, but they happen relatively infrequently.

So, what does innovation (and its cousins collaboration and creativity) look like at a more basic level?  Everyday interactions wherein people are willing and able to share ideas, opinions and thoughts. Diversity of opinion is welcome, not seen as threatening, and healthy debate occurs without bitterness or resentment.

Mistakes and failures are seen as a necessary part of the process and nobody is shamed. People are comfortable asking each other for help at all levels, and they get the help they ask for because people at all levels are also willing to give it. As a destination workplace, this is the free mind state. This is easier read than done, but it can be achieved.

Cultivating a Culture of Helping
In the Jan-Feb 2014 issue of Harvard Business Review, in the article entitled “IDEO’s Culture of Helping,” the authors describe their two-year study of IDEO Corporation, perhaps the most innovative company of the past 50 years. The company recognized that fear is the biggest reason people won’t ask for help, when help is absolutely necessary for people to achieve really innovative results.

The reasons for this fear they discovered to be twofold. The first is fear of judgment, being seen as weak or incompetent if you ask for help. The second is fear of not being able to pay it back if help is received—that there will be a perception of “debt.”

What IDEO had worked very deliberately to create was a culture where asking for help is the norm—with no fear associated with it. Often a senior C-suite manager would just show up unannounced at a brainstorming session and ask, “Can I help?” As a result, an atmosphere of what the authors call “psychological safety” prevails. Moreover, the ROI of such thinking speaks for itself, with IDEO having won more awards for new products than any other company.

Going back to the two levels of innovation, it is perhaps obvious that they blend together. In fact, you can’t have the large visible innovations unless you have an environment that is conducive to facilitating the small ones.  So what is the key to this absence of fear?

Trust Makes Us Fearless
At IDEO, the staff were asked what factors contributed to their comfort in asking any particular person for help. The factors, in increasing order of significance, were:

  • the technical expertise of the person being asked;
  • how accessible they felt that person was; and
  • most importantly, how much they trusted that person.

Ultimately, it is a simple and complex as the fact that the IDEO staff all trust each other; they trust their managers, and they are confident that the company will act in their best interests, as individuals and as a group.

How does this come about? Trust has been the subject of several previous PeopleTalk articles, and a common theme has been the notion of abundance. This is the exact opposite of the idea of “not enough” referred to earlier, which is the biggest source of debilitating fear in organizations.

In short, people need get their workplace needs met for it to become a source of trust. Key to that is creating a culture wherein people know they can ask for help, recognitions and rewards abound, and above all else, people feel valued and appreciated for the worth of their work.

Rest assured, if people feel that there is indeed “enough to go around,” the fear goes away and the Free Mind Factor prevails.

Doug Turner, MSc, MBA is a leadership and executive coach at True Balance Coaching.

(PeopleTalk Winter 2016)

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