The night I dreamed that I had an epic street fight with Halle Berry in the parking lot of a 7-11, after which she stole my car just as a chemical-biological terrorist attack rolled in to wipe out me and every other person in sight, I realized that I might have just the slightest fear issues. (I currently have no issues with Halle Berry. She would never want my dented Volkswagen, anyway.)
The really bizarre thing, though, is that chemical-biological terrorism is a very real possibility in this place I've come to call home. So are bomb threats, shootings, political scandal, and blue collar crime. They're so possible that we've adopted some level of fear as normal, like a background song called "National Paranoia" that has played for so long that you've stopped noticing it.
The motto of one of the first companies I worked for here was "Ever Vigilant." This attitude has its noble and necessary variations in certain sectors, seeing as we've assumed the mission of being the world's beacon of freedom from the fears and evils staining the front page.
But I've also begun appropriating "Ever Vigilant" as a nice label for what I have observed in many workplaces in Washington: at a deep, interpersonal level we are rotting away from distrust, self-defensiveness, and over-alertness for all the things that might happen. In many ways the Washington, DC workplace is the most fear-driven place you might ever encounter.
People come to Washington because they want to change the world. The tricky thing is that as work and mission and identity become so entangled, you have more to fear if one of those elements is challenged. It's enough to break your heart, when you think about it: that the very people who seemingly have the greatest achievements to their names and the fewest reasons to fear should be living such small, bound versions of themselves. These are some of the fears lurking amid the accomplished, driven people I've known in the workplace:
- Work fears: Have I networked enough? Will people define me by my lack of any job? Will I get the promotion? Will they think I'm a slacker if I don't check emails while I'm on vacation?
- Social fears: Am I thin enough to be taken seriously? Do I need to be more extroverted? Do I really want to be seen with these people? Will I be where I thought I'd be by age __?
- Fear that the wrong people will access information, resources, or allies
- Fear of failure: What if they find out that I don't actually know how to do this?
- Fear of being wrong: If I admit that I was wrong, they will write me off permanently as incompetent.
- Fear of our own choices: If I speak out against this decision, will I be pushed out? If only I had chosen that job over this one...
There is constant talk today about great company culture, environments of trust and collaboration, etc. These are wonderful goals - but we need to remember that trust is not built by great branding, a cool office space, and flexible hours alone. Great cultures free from fear are built by individual heart change. Renewed hearts softened by grace and made wise by time are the ones that don't need to harbor that vigilant paranoia that constantly looks over the shoulder to protect a sense of worth.
What would it look like to be a truly fear-less leader not driven by dread of disapproval or disrespect? How could approval and respect be earned through means other than manipulation, unethical cover-ups, or blame-shifting? What attitudes and habits do leaders need to intentionally cultivate over time so that they lead their teams from a position of humility, honesty, and care? How can leaders and subordinates cultivate a willingness to see humility as a strength, admission of error as a gift, and failure as a great unveiling of truth?