How to avoid generating fear in the office Managing

October 29, 1990|By Gerald Graham | Gerald Graham,Knight-Ridder Newspapers

"We must drive out fear," is one of the admonitions expressed by Edward Deming, the quality improvement guru, as a necessary condition for improving quality.

Most managers would say they agree with the statement; yet approximately 45 percent of supervisors and employees we survey respond that "we would probably get into a lot of trouble if we told management everything we were thinking about the company."

Managers often generate fear, without intending to, with typical management practices such as:

* Pinpoint responsibility. A manager raised the anxiety level about eight octaves when he innocently asked in a staff meeting: "Who was responsible for the mistake in the report?"

A better question would have been, "What suggestions do you have for preventing mistakes like the one that happened in the latest report?"

Seek the solution, not the culprit.

* Unapproved acts. It is impossible to approve, ahead of time, all actions needed to improve quality and serve customers. It strikes fear in subordinates when a manager states, or implies, ,, that certain actions were "unapproved."

* Formal, detailed meetings. Meetings should be planned, but there should be time for open, honest debate. When meetings and decision-making are too highly structured, staff members often suppress their ideas for fear of disrupting the structure.

* Detailed, comprehensive policy manuals. When do most people refer to a policy manual? Usually it is when we are trying to avoid a mistake or when we are trying to document why we're not at fault for a problem. As one person stated, "We never refer to our manuals to explain our successes."

* Rigid communication channels. The accusation, "You did not go through proper channels," generates unnecessary anxiety in most people. "Proper channels" are nothing more than arbitrarily defined ways for communicating among groups. The freedom to communicate openly is much more likely to produce the desired results.

Even with good intentions, fear can creep in; thus, we must actively work to drive it out.

Management quiz

Respond to each of the following statements with: 4 equals frequently, 3 equals occasionally, 2 equals seldom, and 1 equals rarely. Most of my subordinates would say that I . . .

1. Attempt to defend my mistakes.

2. Question people when they act without approval.

3. Value detailed policy and procedure manuals.

4. Rely on organizational charts and job descriptions.

5. Encourage communicating through proper channels.

6. Run controlled meetings.

7. Pinpoint responsibility when there are mistakes.

8. Share too little information.

9. Get angry when I hear "bad news."

10. Assess blame for failures.

Total your points. A score of 31 to 40 suggests you are creating unnecessary fear; 17 to 29 suggests room for improvement; 16 or less indicates a better than average job of driving out fear.

Gerald Graham is a professor at Wichita State University and a management consultant. Send questions to The Wichita Eagle, P.O. Box 820, Wichita, Kan. 67201. He will answer representative questions in the newspaper but cannot respond to every request.

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