Wednesday 3 July 2024

Insecurity is worse than incompetence

Employee engagement is challenging. However, it doesn't have to be. Various organizational issues lead to low employee engagement. One particular symptom indicates that things are seriously off track and that significant problems lie ahead for the company. I call this symptom 'insecurity stifles initiative.'

Before I elaborate, let me clarify something. As companies grow and reach mid-size, certain typical symptoms emerge: additional layers of management hierarchy, different teams and silos, misaligned objectives between teams, different subcultures, transformation programs, bureaucracy, politics, financial problems, short-termism, and many more. These are common in most organizations of a certain scale and are not deeply rooted problems. There are tried and tested ways to address these issues, and a whole industry of consulting is built around dealing with them.

However, when 'insecurity stifles initiative' appears, it's a clear signal that some parts of the organization, or the whole organization, are circling the drain. What do I mean by this? In any organization with a certain threshold of staff, there is usually a bell curve distribution of people's attitudes. You will have a few highly motivated, high-agency people, and a few apathetic and disruptive individuals. Any properly functioning organization slowly and humanely weeds out the disruptive individuals and reorients the apathetic to situations where they can be engaged again. The problem lies with the majority who are neither apathetic nor highly motivated.

In an organization where 'insecurity stifles initiative,' it becomes increasingly evident that both the majority and the high-agency people are dissatisfied. For the majority, the culture does nothing to encourage initiative. So, people are doing their work, maybe grumbling about it, and are not very productive. For the highly motivated few, the culture actively blocks or creates hurdles for them, despite their predisposition to take initiative.

I have observed that the culture of 'insecurity stifles initiative' is not specific to any one part of an organization or any one level; it is generic and not localized, making it even harder to observe and recognize, let alone tackle. Everyone from the CEO down to the analyst can exhibit the symptoms of this culture.

There are some telltale signs that this kind of culture is taking hold or is already present:

  1. Selective groups share information, excluding some levels not because it makes sense, but because those excluding them feel the need to protect themselves and their power.
  2. The information held close is usually not on the critical path for the business but is what the select groups deem important to protect their power.
  3. Ideas receive feedback and suggestions that may add 5% improvements but will take almost double the effort to achieve, killing the motivation of those doing it.
  4. Measurement for measurement’s sake is the norm.
  5. There are many channels for providing upward feedback, and it is encouraged in corporate communications, but there are never enough intimate forums for it to be provided easily.

Examples of this behavior include:

  1. Leaders visiting a market from across the globe on pricey travel budgets but not making an effort to meet teams to bond and inspire, only meeting specific business objectives. This is usually justified by cost efficiencies, but what is hidden is the insecurity of not being able to connect as a leader.
  2. Leaders always fixing problems and not painting a picture of possibilities in informal ways. Everything is formal. Efficiency is prioritized over efficacy.

The key summary of all this emerging from an 'insecurity stifles initiative' culture is that employees don't know where they are heading in the organization, leading to negative outcomes.

Because this issue is generalized and can be present anywhere in the organization, the change must come from deep within a silo, with a cohort of cohesive and happy team members and a leader who rises above the milieu of insecurity. This is often uncharted waters, and not many mainstream frameworks or advice work. Each leader needs to find their own ways and create a tribe around them. And it is possible, but rare.

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