Fear

Fear. It cripples organizational change. Individuals either freeze or become defensive. Managers avoid risk. Teams lock everybody else out. Companies wait for an external miracle. Unlike incompetence, antisocial behavior, and laziness, you can’t exterminate fear just by eliminating bad actors; fear envelops the entire organization. Even more challenging, the fear is rooted in legitimate concerns that you can’t control – a merger/acquisition, significant market change, layoffs, etc. – so you can’t just explain it away.

There are three steps we’re trying to take to manage fear:

  • Present: Enable people to excel
  • Future: Work with each person to establish their growth path, especially in the new world
  • Culture: Be open and honest

Fighting Fear: Enable People to Excel

Many engineers try to shift into roles that they think will be most valued in the “new world”. That approach often backfires. First, unless you know that your role is antiquated and irrelevant (in which case, you should’ve been shifting much sooner), the new organization will need that function as much as the old. Second, unless you’re not good at your role (seriously then, why weren’t you already shifting?), you’re more likely to excel in what you’re currently doing than faking it with something new.

To succeed during transitions, focus on being brilliant. When organizations change, superstar and hi-potential people are always a top priority. These elite individuals may be moved to an area of greater priority, but they’re always treasured. Therefore, be exceptional at whatever you do; it’s better than being mediocre at a role you think might be important. Finally, as hard as it may be, if the new organization doesn’t value a role that you believe is critical, you’re probably better off leaving.

Fighting Fear: Path to the Future

Employee reaction to significant organizational change reflects the modern attitude toward their companies. Most say that they believe the changes, however disruptive, are likely good for the company and its shareholders; they also say that they think the changes will not be good for themselves or their peers. In other words, they’re worried about their future.

There is no better time to help engineers craft their plan for the future than during periods of turmoil. First, it gives them the confidence that they will continue be a valued member in the new world. Second, it enables them to develop skills (soft and hard) that will help them be attractive to other companies. Third, and most obvious, we all became engineers because we like learning and doing new and interesting work.

To maximize the value of helping an engineer plan for the future, it’s best to connect it to the organization’s vision for the future (if your CTO hasn’t come up with a comprehensible strategy for the future, you might want to suggest he/she think about shifting roles). When people can see themselves in the company’s future, excitement replaces fear.

Culture: Be Open and Honest

Trust is the most valuable asset in any organization. Any significant project spans people, groups, and roles. Without trust, everybody comes prepared to explain why “the others” failed. With trust, everybody comes prepared to make their teammates succeed. The truth is not fun, whether it involves talking about schedule slips, project cancellations, layoffs, or giving people honest feedback about their performance. Of course, as we learned as children, the truth always has a way of coming out.

My biggest frustration with executive leadership is their need to “spin” events. We hire smart, adult employees. We work with smart, adult customers and partners. Fairy tales make executives look either dishonest or delusional. If you tell people what you’re doing and why, there are three possible results:

  • They understand and resolve to help make that change
  • They disagree and help make modifications to improve the plan
  • They disagree and either leave (which is OK) or subvert the plan (which is another case of dishonesty)

An open and honest culture is always an asset in a company with good people. During periods of change, it’s indispensable.

Conclusion

If you haven’t heard, EMC will change (of course, if you’re reading this blog and didn’t know that, you might also want to read up on something called “the cloud”). While we don’t yet know how dramatic that change will be, there are things we’re all hoping will improve and things we worry will get worse.

People have asked why we’ve been posting so much about career path, standards, publications, and research. First, those are areas in which any CTO team should excel. Second, the people who posted are developing their careers in those spaces. Finally, these are areas in which EMC can be open with the outside world about what we’re doing without marketing spin or careful positioning.

Our lives are going to change and we’ve all got some fear about the future – me included. Instead of surrendering to the fear, we’re going to focus on what we can control. We are working to be the best CTO team in the industry, to help EMC engineering be the best in the industry.

Stephen Manley @makitadremel

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