One day, a president of Wisconsin Bell arrived at work in his downtown Milwaukee headquarters to find there was scaffolding along the front of the building.
“Why is this scaffolding here?” he asked one of the workers.
“Oh, no,” the worker thought, “The President wants the scaffolding gone.”
That same day, the President walked out of the building at lunch to find the scaffolding had all been torn down.
“Where did the scaffolding go?” he asked a worker.
“Oh, no,” the worker thought, “he wants the scaffolding back.”
At the end of the day, the President left for the day, only to find the scaffolding back up in front of the building. There were no workers to ask, so he went home wondering, “what’s the scaffolding for?”
I remember my Dad telling me this story when I was very young. (He reported to that president at Wisconsin Bell and was responsible for the scaffolding.)
I was reminded of this story after watching Whiplash, which is very quickly rising on my favorite film list. The movie opens with a kid playing the drums in a school room by himself. An instructor walks in, and the kid stops playing.
The instructor asks him, “why did you stop playing?” The kid’s response is to start playing.
Then the instructor asks him, “why did you start playing when I asked you why you stopped?”
Both instances are driven by the same element: fear.
Sometimes the fear is instilled by the manager. Some executive or middle managers intentionally lead by fear. But sometimes, people come to the table with that fear – even when the manager doesn’t want that at all.
The result is that the employee starts trying to guess what the manager wants and acts to please the manager, instead of doing what they think is right for the business or project. They try and give the manager what they think the manager wants instead of staying true to the goals of their job.
Employees in fear look at every question asked of them by that manager through a vacuum. They don’t answer the question being asked because they don’t consider that the manager is seeking information to put into a larger context.
Think of how much time the contractors wasted putting up and taking down the scaffolding, when all that president wanted to know was why it was there. He was simply curious.
Unfortunately, another negative effect of this fear is that those workers probably spent the day talking about what an irrational and cruel man that president was for making them put up and take down the scaffolding. You can just hear them asking, “why can’t he make up his mind?”
This fear can be very destructive to a workforce and the projects upon which they’re working.
With this story in mind, I have always worked to be sure my team was not panicking, not working in fear and not assuming I was asking anything other than the question I put forth.
Managing by fear, or having workers that fear their manager, can take you down this road pretty quickly. I don’t want my employees to try and please me. I want them to do excellent work and stay true to the goals of the project. Nothing would please me more.