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Corrupted By Fear

May 22, 2009

I often enjoy listening to ‘Thought For The Day’ on the BBC’s Today program. The religious aspects do not interest me, but the speakers often provide a salutary counter-view to popular wisdom.

Today’s presenter challenged the old adage about power corrupting – and instead suggested that it is fear that corrupts. Fear that prevents us from stepping forward and challenging things that are wrong or unethical. Fear that causes us to remain silent in the face of injustice or poor decisions. And fear that inhibits those in power – because of their fear that they will lose it.

Today’s environment has brought far more openness. We are increasingly aware of what is happening in the world and, to some extent, the media and the internet hold those in power to much greater account. Yet in many ways, this transparency simply emphasizes the extent to which we all live in fear; because in the end, it highlights how many bad – and sometimes evil – decisions are being made – and not being challenged.

And of course it has also revealed our tremendous propensity to never say sorry, to never be accountable and to divert blame onto others.

I am increasingly convinced that the next few years will see revolutionary change in the way that inter-personal and inter-organizational relationships are managed. I believe that we will become much better at asking tough questions at the beginning of a process and not waiting to conduct post-mortems. We will demand more rigorous examination of the facts and the forecasts.

These changes have implications in many areas. Bidding and contracting processes, supplier and customer selection, new product and service introductions – each of these is among them. Our community must increasingly be equipped with facts and must also be more demanding in the facts we seek from others. Status and respect will flow to those who are willing to take accountability, because that is the mark of leadership and is also the mark of those who are not corrupted by fear. We have the chance to re-define processes in a way that leads to more successful trading relationships based on honesty, openness and integrity – and to escape the model that today stifles tough conversations and instead focuses on theoretical victories and the avoidance of blame.

What do I mean by these comments? Well, here are a few examples:

  • Stifled conversations. We all know that it is often hard to deal with areas like forecasting and managing change, so we do not discuss it. Or we avoid innovative value propositions because it would involve too much complexity, or require re-opening too many conversations.
  • Theoretical victories. The obvious examples are the savings claimed by procurement, or the celebrations of forcing high risk contract terms onto the other side. In the end, it is the actual outcome that matters – and these ‘victories’ often undermine the result.
  • Avoidance of blame. We are frustrated by the imprecision of contract and negotiation processes, the uncertainty of who does what, the multiple hand-overs and hand-offs. Yet at the same time, it is very convenient because when things go wrong, it is almost impossible to allocate fault. And in negotiations, much of the game is about allocation / avoidance of possible adverse consequences.

As leaders, our aspirations must become focused on enabling success; and we must demonstrate the courage to tackle our own fears and to challenge the fears of others.

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