Hang on to your willie!

Some time ago, I had the opportunity to watch three management layers of a large company in action in a project. They gave me a riveting example of a fear driven culture.

The lowest level, layer 1 had to develop the project plan. This job usually begins with defining the optimum project result for the organisation or for the client. Not so in this organisation. The team focused all their efforts on figuring out what their superior in layer 2 would want to hear. Success apparently depended on the ability to forecast the manager’s expectations. After much blood, sweat and tears a plan was produced. It was presented to the superior in layer 2. It will come as no surprise that this guy started a lively discussion on what the big boss would want to see! Which, obviously, was something very much unlike this project plan, so how anyone could have been so stupid was beyond comprehension. Five versions of the plan later, the layer-2 superior was confident enough to present the plan to the big boss. That is to say, confident enough to instruct the project manager to present it, so he himself could always wash his hands of the project plan if the big boss did not like it. Which was exactly what happened. And so the whole process started all over again.

Don’t bring me problems!

Typical of a fear driven culture, this behaviour is disastrous for the success of an organisation. Mere days before his company fell over, former Fortis CEO Jean Paul Votron was still heard to repeat his motto: “Don’t bring me problems, bring me solutions!” Such an attitude rapidly cascades down the organisation, suffocating all attempts to communicate openly. Major signals and great ideas are intercepted and discouraged before they can reach decision makers. This soon affects the work climate as well as the organisation’s ability to respond adequately, to innovate and to take the right decisions.

Courage and trust

The CEO of another bank was allergic to this kind of behaviour. ‘They chopped off the angel’s willie again’, he often complained. This expression referred to an event in the past, when a new billboard had been developed, showing an angel cartoon character. Originally the angel had been blessed with a cute little willie. It looked brilliantly funny! But on its way up in the organisation, someone had thought the CEO would find the image inappropriate, and so the willie had to go. End of fun. When he heard about this, the CEO had been very disappointed. Not so much because of the lack of a willie but because of the lack of courage and trust in his organisation. If this happened with a billboard, it must also happen with serious matters and real issues. The incident marked the start of an extensive programme to encourage open communication. After all, a high performance culture requires a climate in which people feel free to speak their mind, to be open and frank with colleagues as well as the boss. And behaviour at the top can make or break such a climate.