Workplace Certainty in a World of Fear

In 2012 Leadership Masters was contacted by a prestigious Fortune 50 organization with over 20,000 employees worldwide. When we inquired into the issue or challenge that they wished to address, they admitted: “We’re a company whose hallmark is innovation…yet we have somehow become risk averse. We haven’t created anything new…no new products, no new anything… in over ten years.”

The first thing we did was acknowledge their honesty. The second thing we did was ask questions. The first was: “When EXACTLY did you create and roll out your last new product?” The answer: “Q1-Q3, 2001”. Our second question was: “So nothing at all after 9/11?” The client’s entire team sat back in stunned silence. We said: “Don’t worry…you’re not alone.”

Ever since the word “terrorism” became part of the world’s daily lexicon, we have been charting the unmistakable trend, in organizations both large and small, toward creating more and more certainty in the workplace. Org charts have become more rigid, processes and operations more airtight, meetings and communications more frequent. Security measures have increased, name badges have become mandatory, e-mail traffic is monitored, and emergency procedures are rehearsed. The intent is both positive and pure: make our employees, our customers, our communities, feel SAFE. In times of great uncertainty, it is the responsibility of leadership to provide a voice of certainty. Conversely, in times of great certainty, it is the responsibility of leadership to provide a voice of uncertainty, so that innovation can flourish.

But as we have seen by the recent attacks in Northern England, Lahore in Pakistan, Bastia in France, and other smaller cities, terrorism has now become more local, more frequent, and more unpredictable. And as the level of uncertainty rises due to the attacks in these more remote communities, the level of human fear will rise to meet it. Much as water seeks its’ own level, so does human fear when it comes to uncertainty.

The danger for leadership is the natural impulse to meet the high level of external fear with an equal or higher lever of internal certainty. In other words, as the sociological environment seems increasingly out of control, leaders may very well try to blanket their work environment with more and more internal control. Of course, the more rules and controls that exist within an organization, the less room there will be to innovate. Such was the case with our new client. In ten years time, their cultural energy had changed from a campus without walls to one of total and impenetrable lockdown. Once the energy shifted to lockdown, they began losing talent, innovation ceased, and the fight to maintain their position in the industry began.

In the last two years, we have seen more senior leaders and HR specialists resigning their positions than we have in the last ten years combined. When we ask why, the answer is nearly always the same: “Too many rules, too much control…no room to create”. In response, leadership development specialists are doing their best to design immersion programs and experiential seminars to help leaders feel the difference in energy between an environment that is safe and controlled, versus an environment that is safe and innovative, and how to create and sustain that energy as uncertainty and fear increase. It has been an uphill battle, because as a news and information culture, we seem to find new ways of ratcheting up the fear almost every day.

The good news is that the leadership development community is fully aware of this phenomenon, and this trend, and they are taking massive action to address it. As for our new client, it took four years to educate all three thousand senior leaders in the behaviors, techniques, and processes of a cultural SHIFT. (They didn’t need a change, they just needed a shift). Today, they are back on top of their industry. They are more creative than ever, and they are retaining and attracting talent. We take no credit in their turnaround. Instead, we applaud this organization, and all organizations, who have the capacity to be self aware, honest, and pro-active in balancing certainty and uncertainty, in a world of fear.

(If you are interested in an interactive, immersion experience that helps executive and high-potential students balance the energies of certainty and uncertainty, visit

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