Breaking the Fear Barrier

"A company’s worst enemy is not always the competition. Sometimes it’s the fear that lives within its own walls."

- Breaking the Fear Barrier, back cover

Have you ever asked yourself what would happen if company departments worked together for the common good of the company? How about wondering what it would be like to be part of an engaged employee workforce that was empowered to use their talents and strengths to do what is right for everyone and not just themselves?

Using his experience and years of research at Gallup, Tom Rieger answers these questions in his book, Breaking the Fear Barrier. In it Tom challenges the usual thinking that the greatest opposition that you, your company and your teams will face is not necessarily the competition, but the internal barriers that start to take hold in your company and allow bureaucracy to take root. But where does bureaucracy come from? Expanding on his research, Tom explains that it is built brick by brick out of the fear of loss. The fear of loss can start as easily as with the need to protect budgets, headcount, resources, and control of their turf.

The Big Idea

The Big Idea: The biggest takeaway from the book

Tearing Down the Bureaucracy Pyramid

"If you’re going to sin, sin against God, not the bureaucracy. God will forgive you but the bureaucracy will not."
- Admiral Hyman Rickover, quoted in Breaking the Fear Barrier, page 27

Tom Rieger describes the three levels of bureaucracy pyramid as:

Level 1 – Parochialism
Level 2– Territorialism
Level 3 – Empire Building

First, some definitions:

Parochialism is a tendency to force others to view the world from only one perspective or through a narrow filter, when local needs and goals are viewed as more important than broader objectives and outcomes.

Territorialism is the hoarding or micromanaging of internal headcount, resources, or decision authority in an effort to maintain control. To understand the difference between the two, Tom explains that “parochialism is about protection from the outside, territorialism is about control over what is inside, regardless of impact on frontline staff or other departments” (pg 33).

The last level, empire building, is defined as “attempts to assert control over people, functions, or resources in an effort to regain or enhance self-sufficiency.”  While there are many forms of empire building, it is fundamentally about acquisition and expansion. Interestingly, the desire to build empires does not necessarily stem from greed, it stems from the fear that unless a group seizes control from others, the project or group will fail in some way.

Getting the frontline engaged into the mission of the enterprise, not just their department, is the way to halt empire building. Starting to communicate guiding principles to the frontlines on how to operate, the values, and the long term decision making process is the way to topple the empires and get all departments working together and communicating.

Insight #1

An actionable way to implement the Big Idea into your life

Becoming a Courageous Enabler

"Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear, not absences of fear."
- Mark Twain, quoted in Breaking the Fear Barrier, page 119

Avoiding fear is going against human nature. Having the courage to face your fear and master it—not only yours, but others—is imperative for the future successes of the organization. Becoming a “courage enabler”, as described by Tom, is all about removing barriers and fostering encouragement, energy, and commitment from above to try new things and to focus on the greater good of the company.

Some activities that Courageous Enablers need to start looking at include: matching responsibilities with strengths, engaging employees, rewarding courageous behavior and, finally, aligning vital courage and moral courage. Vital courage is “inspiration for actions that improves one’s lot in life or to ultimately promote survival” (pg. 98) whereas moral courage is “the authentic expression of one’s beliefs or values in pursuit of justice or the common good despite power differentials, dissent, disapproval, or rejection.” (pg 98) The actions that come out of using vital courage are best summarized as “what’s best for me” and moral as “what is best for the organization”.  There’s nothing wrong with Vital Courage, but you want to make sure you’re tempering it with Moral Courage whenever possible.

Insight #2

An actionable way to implement the Big Idea into your life

Watch for Courageous Killers

"It is not necessary to change. Survival is not mandatory."
- W. Edward Deming, quoted in Breaking the Fear Barrier, page 127 

Where the goal is to build a team of Courageous Enablers, you must be on the watch for Courageous Killers. These managers have numerous methods in their arsenal to kill courage, but the most common are inconsistency, playing the blame game, hoarding information, public floggings, and subjectivity/rewarding subservience over service, and excessive control.

To make the move from Courage Killer to Courageous Enabler, a manager must be consistent in their messaging to their teams; they do not want to be seen as praising an employee for the same action(s) that they punish another employee for. The use of clear and objective guidelines that are communicated well and that the organization fully understands will help to prevent inconsistency issues.

Breaking the Fear Barrier is a great tool in helping turn managers, leaders, and frontline employees into masters of their fear and, by extension, improve their ability to identify bureaucratic behaviors that may or have already taken root in their department or organization. When we know what these behaviors look like we know how to address their symptoms and cure the disease they bring with them, creating an environment that is full of courageous enablers; a group of engaged employees that will work for everyone, not just themselves.

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Ken Ott


WHO ARE YOU? I am a husband and father of 3 children, 1 boy and 2 girls. I have been managing for the past 7 years in the IT field and developing leaders through a local leadership development class for the past 2 years...
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