The Floodgates Fear

Recently, I met with a forward-thinking leader who recognized his organization had reached a tipping point.  He knew the current approach to flexibility in the way work is done was too random, inconsistent, and organic.  It needed to be more coordinated and strategic to address a variety of business challenges, including attracting and retaining the diverse, knowledgeable talent required to run the business.

But, like clockwork, he asked the following three questions in quick succession:

“What if it sets a precedent?”
“How will I know if people are working if I can’t see them?”
“What if they abuse it?”

He had officially hit “The Floodgates Fear,” a fear so deep and pervasive that it has its own name (and is preceded by a “The”).

Simply put leaders are afraid that if they officially and publicly encourage employees to leverage work flexibility, technology, and workspace to do their jobs and manage their lives, this will be the result:

No one will show up for work.  Leaders worry they will be the only ones standing in a room full of empty desks answering all of the emails, fielding all of the calls, attending all of the meetings –alone.

When I share this picture with groups of leaders, they laugh and nod their heads in recognition.  That is EXACTLY what they are afraid of.

So, the question is how do they avoid getting paralyzed by The Floodgates Fear and inspire the organization to make the shift to high performance flexibility?

First, it’s important to acknowledge this fear is real and valid.  Too often I see brave leaders who articulate what many of their peers are too afraid to say out loud only to be labeled “naysayers” or “resisters.”  Quite the opposite.  They know they are stuck at a roadblock.  They are looking for a roadmap that gets them to the other side of the fear.

For a sense of what that roadmap to the other side of fear looks like consider my responses to the questions the leader I recently met with posed:

Fear #1: “What if it sets a precedent?”  
Implementing a culture of shared accountability, trust and leadership that is the basis ofhigh performance flexibility will set a precedent. The precedent will be that everyone has the language, mindset, skills, and tools to effectively answer the question, “what do we need to get done, and how, when, and where do we do it best?”  That means making an investment in the training, practice, and resources necessary for everyone to master this new, more intentional way of working.

Fear #2: “How will I know if they are working if I can’t see them?”
The simple answer is, “how did you know they were working when they came into the same physical space at the same time every day? It should be no different.”

As is often the case, the leader I was speaking with responded with a blank stare, because the truth is in most organizations metrics of performance and productivity are not very clear.

One of the most powerful impacts of a culture-shift to high performance flexibility is suddenly people start to ask, “What matters to our business?  How are we measuring it?”  As those parameters become more defined, and supervisors no longer rely on presence as a proxy for performance, the fear begins to recede.

Fear #3: “What if they abuse it?” 
Yes, a small minority of people may lack the competencies to operate effectively in a flexible work culture.  However, with the right training, support, and guidance, the majority will give you more.  Research, and more than two decades of experience, have proven this to be true again and again.

If there is “abuse,” upon closer inspection, it’s usually a general performance issue and not flexibility issue. Greater latitude to determine how, when and where work is done can cause a deeper problem to become more visible and it should be dealt with accordingly.

If you are a leader who wants to unlock the performance and engagement at the core of work flexibility, technology and workspace but you find yourself stuck behind The Floodgates Fear, you are not alone. There’s a roadmap to the other side of that roadblock. It’s a matter of training, practice, measurement and managing to the majority who will thrive.

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