Tag Archives: fear

The Nature of Fear: Are We Paralyzed by Conformity?

AMG121606a-dilworth-leaves

Conformity in nature and human nature. Survival is at our core. Are we afraid to be different? Where has Darwin taken us?

Understanding the notion of conformity is important when we talk about culture, inside organizations and out. It’s become a key driver in our thinking. As we’ve discussed, our mindset is subtly but deeply influenced by our own vauge perceptions of things are supposed to be, consumed by a feeling that our survival may depend on our ability to fit in.

Can we actually be paralyzed by conformity?

To Margaret Wheatley, there’s no beating around the bush. She says we are. Consider these excerpts from A Simpler Way (1999):

“We have terrorized ourselves by the thought of evolution, driving ourselves into positions of paralyzing conformity, for fear of getting things wrong .. (where) extinction will follow swiftly on the heels of any mistake.”

“.. fear is the darkest of Darwinian shadows.”

Wheatley likes to cut to the chase.

Can we find examples to support her claim? I think they are plentiful, and they are all around us. Consider:

  • a consumer culture that thrives on conformist based purchasing (think: brands, trends, styles)
  • social circles that favor (or outright demand) fitting in
  • work environments that favor the status quo, resisting alternative viewpoints
  • education systems increasingly riveted to standards
  • organizations that cling to structure/hierarchy over more dynamic/collaborative modes of interaction
  • a Western busiess culture modeled upon repeatable, uniform, mechanistic models of efficiency

Much has been written (by me and others; see also a book by C.Christensen, and a great RSA animation by K.Robinson), on the downside of our mechanistic, structure-focused paradigms. It’s thinking that makes us slaves to someone else’s blueprint. Our culture and our thought processes seem literally consumed by the conformist view.

Can we break the cycle?

I say yes. If we can find ways to fundamentally change our mindset.

I’m intrigued that in the very same book, Wheatley goes on to describe patterns and rules in nature that seek to discover what works. Conformity, perhaps, is not all bad, like a tree seeking a greater share of critical sunlight, or vying to expand its rainfall catching potential. Have a need for more light and water? Grow a little taller. Sprout some more leaves.

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A better, more useful frame might be: conform if it’s working, adapt if it’s not.

Ultimately, I think it comes down to a balancing act. So often, we don’t see a choice. Conformity of purpose is important where precision, quality and scale are required. But when we limit our exploration of new ideas or way of doing things, we cut off our chance to learn, to innovate, and to grow.

Conformity can be a trap. And it can also be our saving grace when we frame it as a repeatable pattern, a platform for new possibilities.

Both. And.

The #cdna community hosts a periodic exploration of social learning, a deep dive into the factors that help us learn together. We seek to identify enablers that help us discover, and the barriers that tend to keep us from learning.  At our next discussion, let’s tee up these questions on conformity in the context of culture:

  • Q1. What reactions or thoughts does mention of comformity tend to trigger?
  • Q2. Can we advance metaphors for conformity that focus on upside (tree leaves) and caution of the downside (factory model)?
  • Q3. If you agree with Wheatley on the dark side of Darwin, why does conformist thinking carry a special risk?
  • Q4. Can we influence the cultural implications that conformity introduces? How?

I can help on that last one with a hint: if you’re a Peter Block fan, you’ll know the answer to “How?” is almost always “Yes!”  Our next #cdna chat is slated for Monday March 10th at 8pm ET.

Bring your ideas and an open mind. We hope to see you there.

Chris Jones (aka @sourcepov)


Cultures of Fear. Is ‘Old School’ still in session?

Staring up the Corporate Ladder. With much at stake, do we dare take a step?

STARING UP THE CORPORATE LADDER. With much at stake, do we dare take a step? Original art by Robert Winkler 2012.

CHARLOTTE, NC. September 2013, by

Seems risk is everywhere in the world these days, and the work place is no exception.  Not long ago we could count on the corporate world to provide a secure income and career track. Today we so often find ourselves vulnerable, unsure of our next steps, with our professional future uncertain.

SEPTEMBER FRAME

I just picked up a copy of Smart Tribes by Christine Comaford, the NYT best seller that does a great job of focusing on this topic anew. She relates traditional views of leadership to ‘old school’ management styles that are based on fear: “Perform, or we’ll remove your ability to pay your mortgage ..” (p.16).

At some time or another, we’ve all witnessed situations where fear has been a factor at work.

To me, the question is how do we escape the destructive gravity of these situations, especially when there is so often critical mass pulling everyone down. Misery, they say, loves company.  Comaford offers solutions that track well with Goleman’s Primal Leadership as well as CollabDNA .. namely .. creating emotional connections, and working to influence the culture.

Let’s frame some questions that might help us on this path:

  • Q1. What are the org dynamics or management styles that make fear possible?
  • Q2. What is the difference between ‘commitment’ and ‘compliance’?
  • Q3. When is the notion of ‘accountability’ effective? Is it sometimes misused?
  • Q4. Can you describe actions, behaviors and challenges of leaders you’ve seen who were actively working to dimantle fear-infused culture?

Thanks as always for your time, insights and energy. See you at the chat, the week of 9/16. Watch for timing.

AUGUST FRAME

As I recently turned the pages of Susan Jeffers’ classic “Feel the Fear, and Do It Anyway” I found both comfort and common sense in the logic of “pushing through.” But in the work context, it seems the risks can so quickly outweigh the benefits. Do we dare raise radical new ideas? Think outside the safety of conventional wisdom?

Can we dare to be different?

Thanks to Scott Smith for his comment in July in the post of leaders who resist change. It caught my attention, and inspired this post.

In our Monday 8/12 edition of #CDNA, let’s ask a few questions about fear in the organizational context, to see if we might bring some new light to a area so often shrouded in the dark inner reaches of corporate politics:

Q1. Argyris (1980) spoke of fear as the unspeakable; has this changed, or is still prevalent?
Q2. Jeffers (1987) spoke of the need to “unlearn negative programming” .. is it safe for us to proceed when others around/above us have not?
Q3. Which is the more difficult fear to unlearn: survival? not knowing? or not fitting in?
Q4. As a leader, what is the first step in elminating fear in the workplace?

The 2nd week of each month at 8pm or 9pm ET, the #CDNA crew seeks to bring open minds to our ongoing conversation on organization change.

Sure, we’ll try to tap industry knowledge and the wisdom of sages along the way. But we favor a common sense approach. Challenging “what we think we know” and suspending our favorite paradigms is, almost always, the first step to new thinking.

Looking forward to seeing you at #CDNA.

Chris aka @sourcepov


The Courage to Collaborate [FRI 4/26 CBODN 2013 Conference, Arlington VA]

The Courage to Collaborate

Join the conversation: Friday April 26th 1p at GMU Founder’s Hall, Arlington VA

Organizations in the 21st century have grown increasingly risk averse, causing many people inside them to take a defensive view of the world.

Small wonder that collaboration – the open exchange of ideas in an effort to solve problems – has a grown increasingly difficult.  More and more we hear about collaboration and it’s benefits, via sage advice from outsiders and edicts from above.  But there’s a simple question facing us.  It often goes unasked and stays unanswered.

Do we have the courage to collaborate?

On Friday April 26th, at the Chesapeake Bay OD Network (CBODN) 2013 Annual Conference, from 1-2:15 pm, James Alexandar and I are taking on this topic.  The conference theme is “Courageous Leadership” and it explores how OD practitioners must challenge what we think we know about achieving success in the 21st century organization.

I’m Chris Jones, @sourcepov from Twitter, and I’ll be heading up from Charlotte to join in the conversation.

James and I will explore a variety of the key elements in the equation, but ultimately we’ll focus in on Culture, lack of Trust and Fear.  These elements invariably shape and constrain behaviors in today’s organizations, in spite of efforts in the opposite direction.  Most of the time, the odds seem stacked against us.  The ability to take on the challenges requires an immense amount of courage.  Success requires leaders who are willing and able to release their death grip on control.  The discussion on Friday will explore some core precepts of OD, then tackle the implications of key barriers.  Then we’ll share some very specific insights on how collaboration accelerates in a high-trust, low-fear workplace, giving participants hands on experience with collaboration in an open exchange.  We’ll navigate from a “risk averse” mindset to a “risk-enabled” one, tapping ideas from my book The DNA of Collaboration: Unlocking the Potential of 21st Century Teams.

Continue reading


When Logic Leaves Us: Heuristics, Instincts and Fear (Ch.9)

No matter how hard we work on the skills for collaboration, there are times when are our intended efforts are hi-jacked. Deep in our mental circuitry are safety mechanisms that can trigger with little notice, influencing our behavior and what we say.

When this happens, we lose our collaborative edge.

Let’s take a look at a few of the most common triggers, to surface some working examples. It will help if we can bring these formidable forces top of mind:

  • Q1. Heuristics like “go with the flow” are mental shortcuts; what are more examples? when might they trigger?
  • Q2. Instincts keep us safe, but learning and collaboration require risks. How do our survival instincts impact our engagement?
  • Q3. The Emotion of Fear is perhaps the greatest negative influence on collaborators. What exactly are we afraid of?
  • Q4. Margaret Wheatley said: “Fear of Error seems to be the darkest of Darwinian shadows” .. can we guard against this thinking?

While many of these subconscious mechanisms lie beyond our direct control, being aware of them gives our thinking selves the chance to call time out when our animal instincts trigger in non-productive ways. fMRI (magnetic brain imaging) is helping us understand this better.

I discuss these dynamics in The DNA of Collaboration, Chapter 9.

Instincts can be critical triggers. But when we fear loss of acceptance or fear our survival is threatened, our ability to collaborate is compromised.

Think about the implications. Would love your feedback.

- Chris Jones @sourcepov, author


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