Breaking the Fear Barrier: How Fear Destroys Companies From the Inside Out and What to Do About It
“Hmmm, maybe we could both go and strangle your boss? . . . Small wonder then that Breaking the Fear Barrier ends with a call for courage by business leaders, moral traits seldom taught in the nation’s B-Schools. . . . With bailouts and bankruptcies becoming routine, which leadership model would you prefer: Lehman Brothers or Seal Team Six?”
Business literature—that neverending quest for Mammon’s innermost secrets—was under heavy attack recently as our local Borders Books morphed into a going-out-of-business sale. A well-ordered setting where one might linger over books and coffee suddenly resembled a fire sale. Business books were remaindered by 30 percent; but even those ghostwritten by newsbiz honeys like Maria Bartiromo and Christine Romans attracted few buyers.
Painful as they are, recessions provide opportune moments to ask provocative questions. Among them: What is behind the deep malaise now disquieting American business? According to Tom Rieger, a consultant with the Gallup organization, fear is the uninvited guest at the corporate banquet—though few are willing to discuss it openly.
“Fear destroys companies. More specifically, fear leads companies to destroy themselves.” While the specifics vary as widely as corporate cultures, the symptoms are depressingly common: “. . . bureaucracy, inefficiency, low morale and, ultimately, failure.”
Breaking the Fear Barrier is Mr. Rieger’s first book, one that grew out of his work with Gallup after the usual array of analytical metrics, procedures, and systems failed to uncover underlying subtleties. In 145 clearly written pages—easy weekend reading—Tom Rieger exposes the truths instinctively understood by everyone but seldom admitted in polite company. In his calculus, “fear of loss” and an “endemic sense of entitlement” are the root causes of dog-eat-dog competition and bureaucratic in-fighting for everything from pay and promotion to budgets and big offices.
While fear underlies everything, parochialism, territorial conquest, and empire-building are the sedimentary bedrock of every bureaucratic structure. Although these dry bones may appear dead, fear barriers exist for a reason. Admiral Hyman Rickover is approvingly quoted, “If you’re going to sin, sin against God, not the bureaucracy. God will forgive you but the bureaucracy won’t.”
In one of his book’s more compelling examples, Mr. Rieger succinctly shows that customer service is becoming a lost art because of hyper-controls imposed by nervous corporate bureaucrats. “No company . . . wants to hire brainless robots . . . (Y)et all too often companies script every word and deed of frontline employees, not allowing them to make any decisions while holding them solely responsible for their results.” Worst of all: demanding that customer service representatives smile mindlessly through every encounter which—good or bad—always ends with, “Is there anything else I can do to help you?” Hmmm, maybe we could both go and strangle your boss?
This lack of empowerment at lower levels also costs time and money because information-sharing and bold innovations designed to win loyal customers are unlikely when workers are treated like prisoners. “Shockingly, one out of every two American workers is a prisoner.”
Mr. Rieger sketches out a kind of 12-step program to set them free, with “rules audits” and decentralized decision-making helping to offset empire-building and short-term thinking. It was a bit worrisome that the book’s best example of these reforms is Lenovo, the Chinese computer giant. From humble beginnings, Lenovo grew like Topsy but later stagnated until its chairman came out of retirement to set things right. “Lenovo is all of my life. When it looked like my life is threatened, I had to come out to defend it.”
Such draconian measures require courage as well as foresight—a suspicion that the smartest guys in the room may not be all that bright or an understanding that no company is really too big to fail. The problem is that these bet-the-company tests are becoming daily occurrences as the Second Information Revolution relentlessly pits entrenched hierarchies against aggressive networks in the race for innovation and survival.
Small wonder then that Breaking the Fear Barrier ends with a call for courage by business leaders, moral traits seldom taught in the nation’s B-Schools. Perhaps for that reason, the book’s final example of turn-around leadership is notional rather than historical.
Mr. Rieger’s research includes seven years of “Barrier Analysis” as a Gallup consultant as well as almost 50 other sources cited in his book—probably a record given the prevailing standards of business literature. But he might have acquired even weightier ammunition by tapping into the classics of Max Weber, whose 19th century writings about the “trained incapacity” of workers in a bureaucracy are still relevant today.
And because the author’s background suggests some familiarity with defense issues, his future writings might also consider the adaptation of military hierarchies—where bureaucratic intimidation occasionally becomes an art form— to the band of brothers engaged in life-and-death struggles with relentlessly adaptive insurgent networks.
With bailouts and bankruptcies becoming routine, which leadership model would you prefer: Lehman Brothers or Seal Team Six?