The Voice: fear and raise your voice

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The Voice: fear and raise your voice

Every manager has it sometimes: the idea that only you understand. What that conviction can lead to, we read about in the posts this week The Voice and the leadership of John de Mol. Erik de Zwart, presenter and former radio director under De Mol, said in the AD: “When John de Mol walks onto the work floor, the staff clicks with their heels. Afraid of the big boss.”

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Where does such a culture of fear begin? What can it lead to? And what do you do about it?

1What does it start with? Fear is essential for the survival of the human organism. As a rule, avoiding loss is more important to us than deviating, contradicting and taking other risks.

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Eliminating fear in a work environment is therefore hard work. Fostering fear is actually super easy. The recipe? Talk more than you listen. Show no doubt. Express your opinion. In your environment, others will then less and less raise their voices and say deviant things. They express their frustration behind your back. But when you’re around, everyone plays along nicely.

2Where does this lead? When you’re in charge, this feels pretty good. You don’t hear bad news and have the impression that everything is going well. In the meantime, a disease is rampant in the organization that sometimes only rears its head after years. Then it turns out that colleagues have left with guts, that all ideas are starting to resemble each other and that the cover-up has become too full.

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Sometimes the silence of employees leads to major disasters. A classic example—which I recently saw at a seminar—is the space shuttle Columbia disaster on February 1, 2003. Upon reentry, the space shuttle burned up, killing all seven astronauts.

NASA engineer Rodney Rocha saw it coming, but got no response from his executives. In fact, he was forbidden to contact people higher up in the hierarchy. At a crucial meeting about the risks, he did not dare to speak out. „I just couldn’t do it”, he said in an interview with ABC News. The environment in which he worked made it impossible to share his doubts.

In the same broadcast, NASA manager Leroy Cain reacted with incomprehension. Rocha should have simply stood up and expressed his concern. That was his job, after all, Cain said.

3What are you doing about it? Announcing a new culture or ordering employees to speak up is easy. But working together in a truly different way takes the unruly route of behavioral change.

Psychological safety – the belief that you can take social risks – is not something you can introduce with powerpoints and policies. It is a social phenomenon that needs to be stimulated at team level. According to researcher Amy Edmondson, it starts with being humble as a leader, emphasizing learning, asking questions, listening and appreciating the input of colleagues.

And it also means saying goodbye to the idea I started with: that you know best after all. But anyone who really believes the latter is probably reading something else already.

Ben Tiggelaar writes weekly about personal leadership, work and management.

A version of this article also appeared in NRC Handelsblad on 22 January 2022

A version of this article also appeared in NRC on the morning of January 22, 2022

The Voice: fear and raise your voice
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