nothing to fear but fear itself

If people were perfect, we wouldn’t need to collaborate, just clone.

People used to think the way to be efficient was to divide and conquer. And that’s still true, but limited. The next level goes from divide and conquer to unite and conquer. What I mean by this is that each of us individually has a set of competencies, experience and perspectives, as well as inexperience, weaknesses and blind spots.

As a team united, our strengths are amplified and our weaknesses diminished. Anyone who’s ever been part of a really collaborative team will relate to the blood-pumping excitement – the “we can do anything” feeling that comes from this.

So why is it so very rare? There are of course lots of reasons of course, but I think the number one reason is fear.

A collaborative team has a fully and mutually open kimono. and we live in a society that’s been taught to be very bashful. A couple of generations of top-down management by fear have taught us that imperfections are shameful, and we should be sure to cover ours.

But if we’re constantly covering our ___’s then we are not allowing the team to work its amplify/minimize magic.

Earlier today, I took an email trail and posted it to an internal wiki. The ask in the email was some answers to questions posed in a q&a session. I was taken to task for posting it cause it wasn’t “ready” – it hadn’t been “reviewed” – someone’s going to take offence.

Ladies and gentlemen – this is what a wiki is for! Put it out rough, and let the team do its thing.

Who’s your team? Your team is the set of people that you share these characteristics with:

1. Shared goals and mission.

2. Mutual respect

3. Trust

4. A pact, enabled by the previous 3, that makes finding problems and flaws a virtue.

Traditional management by fear encourages us to hide flaws and weaknesses, because we’re punished for them, rather than rewarded for our strengths. So – instead of bringing possible problems to the table early and eagerly – where they can get be turned into opportunities and achievements, they are hidden until its so bad that they burst.

Want to be the best and the brightest team? Bring your strengths, bring your confidence, bring your flaws, and toss the kimono.



  1. Bravo! for getting discussion out of email and into a social space. We are being strangled by internal CC: spam and interminable threads each adding the previous content. As for getting into trouble well I learned from an old master that “It’s easier to ask forgiveness than permission”, plus if you’re not getting in trouble you’re probably not innovating!

  2. I agree. One of the big roadblocks to continous improvement is the lack of a “learning organization”. Everyone is afraid to say “I don’t know, let’s find out together.” I love your 4 points that make up a team. This fear of underperforming makes it hard to establish metrics as an enabler of improvement instead of a detriment to it. Mutual respect and trust lead to a collaborative environment where anyone can give an idea and as a team make a decision without taking things personal. It’s not about my ideas or opinions, it’s about the best idea to solve our team’s problem.

  3. I agree wholeheartedly with your assessment and advice. The advice is especially actionable if the team is unified and the goal is truly shared.

    However, as a Product Manager, my “team” may consist of individuals from a variety of corporate tribes, each with their own customs, motivations and fears, and none over which I have direct authority. In this case, the 4 characteristics you outline still matter, and are still achievable, though it will take a different framework of understanding, verging on anthropology, and a different kind of leadership, almost entirely based on persuasion via diplomacy.

    1. so right – understanding the needs wants goals and desires of a matrixed team is challenging, but achievable. it is a matter of exercising influence rather than authority.

  4. In Sara J. Moulton Reger’s book titled “Can Two Rights Make a Wrong?, IPM Press, 2006, she talks about a “Tangible Culture”. In the book she suggests a framework that the comment from Trevor Rotzien seems to be talking about. But Trevor seems to be approaching it from an anthropological perspective. I find this very fascinating. As we begin to talk about open environments where the product manager will never have authority granted by title, this concept become critical to understand.

  5. On fear, it is the natural outcome of our first efforts to learn. When a person moves from unconscious unknowing to conscious knowing, they naturally feel unconfortable. It’s important to get past this step in the process quickly. The learner has to be affirmed. The learner must be taught that even at their level achievement is possible. It’s not a matter of having a fear free environment, but one of affirmation and achievement even in small steps.

    When you teach someone to dance Argentine tango, you get them to “go to the cross.” You use a convoluted and not quite rigorus way of getting them there. But, when they get there, and they have been affirmed through each instructional increment, they surprise themselves, lose their fear, and commit to conquering the dance, which takes years and years. You use a deliberately created pedeolgical approach, a teaching way, rather than a doing way.

    As far as shared goals, what a myth! No, what they have is alignment with the shared goal. Consider the shared goal to be the main electrical extension cord. Their alignment in a matter of running their power cord up a junction box and plugging in. They have to create the junction box and the cord to reach the main line. They have to see that the shared goal will help them achieve one or more of their goals. Their acheivement of their goals is where their commitment to the shared goal comes from.

    Writing your MBOs was an exercise in alignment. This is almost never done in a startup. At a vast public company, my supervisor had me go around and teach the rest of her staff how to get alignment.

    For product managers, you need to know your team members that well, all of your team members, not just your programmers. And, even where you have no authority, you can still help them align with the team goal. And, you can use your relationship capital with your peers and superiors to help things happen in your team member’s career.

    When I wanted to learn project management, my client had a goal of improving his organization’s project management processes. I asked for funding to take a course. I got it. It came out of his budget, not my line manager’s budget. His company didn’t have to do that, but we were all a team, and all there to satisfy a larger external client. We had shared goals. And, I had alignment.

    Alignments can be fragile. The functional manager can damage their staff’s alignments. So can a product manager, or a client manager, or any number of things internal or external to the team, or the extended organization. Once alignment is achieved, your job doesn’t end.

    Alignment begins by knowing your people. Alignment continues by knowing your people. Knowing someone means knowing them as they see themselves; as they say themselves; as they are seen by others–you, peers, functional bosses, others; and as they think they are. In doing this, realize that a person never knows themselves that well.

    No, don’t send me to an HR team building exercise, just know me. Know me beyond my contributions to your project rollups. Know me beyond your management communications. Know me through your leadership communications.

  6. that’s a very thoughtful post. I think we’re not as much at odds as taking a different tack – i think that trust does come from intimacy, and i would amplify what you said about knowing people – if I care to learn your needs, wants, goals, fears and desires or you mine, we’re going to understand one another much, much better.

    Where I disagree is on the source of fear – yes there is fear of the beginner, but many organizations are run entirely on the blame game – not all. This encourages people to hide their flaws and any problems that arise. Only good news is ever discussed. That is not a healthy environment and it has nothing to do with the learning curve.

  7. productfour, I’ll go back to my tango example for a moment. We have rules like

    * Never complain about your partner. The follower is free to walk off the floor is you hack her off.

    * The lead is reponsible for everything, and I mean everything. If the lead falls, let the hell go and take the fall. If the follower falls, she should never hit the floor. If another lead bumps into you, they bump into you, not her. If she misses a step, you change your feet to match hers.

    * Your follower is just following your lead. She never makes a mistake, never. It is your weak lead that caused the problem.

    That is leadership. If you take a job at a bad organization, realize that there is truth in the saying that bad orgs ruin good managers. Don’t let them ruin you. Don’t let them ruin your team, or your team members. You are the leader, so lead, so push back against all that negativity. And, imagine that if you create a safe space in a storm, your team will be even more committed.

    When I led a team of people with a few that didn’t like me, the organization was a mess. They didn’t know why they were there. They were a mess as well. The very top made the bottom a hard place to be. So those of us who led, made safe places, and found alignment. Once, I had my team come back from a company party at a certain time. I went back early. Everyone was there fifteen minutes early. We didn’t have any work, so I sent them home. I didn’t have to stress their being back. They were back, because it was in their interest. After we left, my boss showed up with a different idea. Well, my boss never mentioned any of it to me. Know your team. They will follow, and in this particular job, I had people with more authority following me, because it was easier on them to let me take all the responsibility.

    I didn’t care that things were bad. I just knew that I had this number to hit, and we hit it, over and over without fail until the day I left. That the workplace was a mess didn’t matter either. We managed within our team to ignore it all and get the job done, because it was in our best interest.

    Don’t let history imply that today is like tomorrow. Don’t let the fear mongers into your market, your space, your team. Own it. Lead it. And, they will shut up. If not, well, …, you should learn how to avoid this situation. You must. Employment can be dangerous. It need not be. But, preaching to the sellers of fear doesn’t give them something better to sell. Sometimes it’s the CEO selling the fear, or is it just ego, or control? Yes, it happens. Lead. It goes away.

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