Tom Rieger, author of Breaking the Fear Barrier: How Destroys Companies from the Inside Out and What to Do About It, joined the show recently. You can listen to our conversation here
Mr. Rieger is a Senior Practice Expert for Gallup, has pioneered the study and science of organizational barriers. Rieger is an expert in applying behavioral economic principles to uncover how complex systems self-destruct -- and how to correct those problems. Through this work, he has become a recognized leader in developing methods and frameworks to identify and remove barriers to organizational and societal success.
Rieger joined Gallup in 1994. In addition to his work as the leader and chief architect of Gallup's consulting on organizational barriers, he is an expert in international research and polling methods and developing and applying statistical models to complex organizational issues.
Tom's book is imminently readable and includes imminently doable tips and steps you can take within your own organization to reverse this rising tide of fear that only serves to threaten your organization's sustainability. He's pulled the company's global research across a dozen countries spanning six continents to identify the "fear barrier" and to show how and why fear destroys companies. The book explains how to transform a fear-plagued organization into one that is courageous and unstoppable.
Tom. Thank you so much for being on the show!
Thank you, Zane. Pleasure to be here.
Thanks for writing a great book.
Is this your first book?
Yes, it is. First one.
Were you ever afraid that readers wouldn't embrace it, the data and examples would be seen as less than compelling, it would be greeted with a great big yawn?
Oh, sure. I think most first-time authors have that fear. You know, I have to say in doing that work that led to the book this is really a story that needs to be told. I’ve seen anywhere from the frontlines to Vice-President’s of Sales being reduced to tears trying to deal with these insurmountable barriers or at least these seemingly insurmountable barriers. We remind them they were created internally themselves. And if they were created internally themselves then they can be destroyed internally.
I just think we need to give people some hope that their hopes and dreams can be achieved if we do this.
But, sure, it’s the first book. So, you always worry about that a little bit.
I love that point that these rules were created internally and they can be destroyed internally.
Now. Your book was released yesterday. How are the results so far?
Uh, so far, the results are very good. I looked on Amazon yesterday. And at one point it was:
- the number one workplace book
- the number one organizational behavior book
- I think it was the number 10 business book overall.
I haven’t checked how it’s done today. But, it was a little better than I had expected for right out of the box.
Who is your intended reader? As you labored early in the morning or late at night, who were you writing for? Describe this person for us.
You know, Zane, it’s really written for anybody who feels their success is limited by fear. Their fear or the fear of others. Anyone who is trying to do the right thing but feels handcuffed by what may seem like ridiculous rules and policies. Or anyone who’s the victim of someone else’s fear. Or even who create barriers out of their own fears. Things that happen within an organization that build one little silo at the expense of broader success. That’s who I’m really writing this for.
Mostly these are managers and supervisors, but employees as well, can do things, as well, to help the situation.
In her book Being Strategic, Erika Andersen coined the phrase reasonable aspiration or hoped-for future. And she asks:
What is your reasonable aspiration or hoped-for future?
What was your reasonable aspiration or hoped-for future with writing this book?
My main aspiration was to create a new dialogue. These things all exist in all organizations and everybody knows it. But they are all unmentionables. They are things that aren’t talked about.
So, I wanted to create a conversation about good rules and bad rules, a renewed focus on mission and achieving alignment around that; having people understand that when they make a decision, there’s a down-stream impact on others. And that has to be taken into account.
And, local success doesn’t always mean broader success. Sometimes you have to make adjustments. Whether it’s a factory worker in New Jersey or a manager in Chicago or a C-level executive in San Francisco...all these people are worried that their hlpes and dreams won’t be obliterated by the fears of others.
So, my aspiration is to give these people hope and some tools to overcome those fears.
How will you measure your progress from writing, publishing, promoting this book? What signs will mark your progress?
That’s a great question, Zane. You know, when we’re brought in to do this kind of work there are 8 - 10 types of issues that we are trying to impact like lower turnover or improve employee engagement or customer metrics. So, there’s usually a hard-level metric you want to take a look at.
That’s not really what I look for. When I walk into these organizations after they’ve made some changes I want it to feel different. Where companies have done this right and tackled this full-on, it just feels like a different place. There’s energy; there’s life.
There’s one organization I dealt with, it was a bank. We first went into that operations center, it was a god-awful place. The only thing that was missing was someone sitting out in front in the room banging a drum and yelling:
But by the time we were done, there was energy, there were balloons, there was excitement and most important of all there was real progress on goals. There was a real jump in customer satisfaction. They had doubled their first-call resolution in the call-center.
You can do great things when you really unleash that human capital. And it’s that sort of thing I really am looking for.
You know, I am distracted. And it’s not your fault that I am distracted. I have this vision of a company that I worked at in the past. They had a call-center supervisor whose desk was up on a raised platform, 1 or 2 or 3 feet high. You know where I’m going with this. They didn’t have the ramming speed, or Ben-Hur’s slave ship scenario, but they had a statistic on the board that showed them how many calls were in the queue and how long they had waited. That, in effect, served as the drum beat of ramming speed, move faster.
That’s an interesting one. Often, what I find with that exact metric is that it’s used as a proxy for how happy the customer is. And, sure you can’t let a customer wait forever. But what’s more important is:
" Did you solve the problem and did you make them feel like a valued customer? "
And I don’t know about you, but I would rather wait another 30 seconds and have a great experience than be rushed off the phone to not drag down that metric. So, that’s a great example of where those barriers can come in.
If you are just focused on measuring that queue, then you’re going to try to get rid of that customer as fast as you can.
Absolutely, and if all your performance appraisals are based on how quickly your call center reps got that call done and how many calls they handled, not how many customers were lost or how many repeat calls were need....
I have a great example of that. There was a public utility we worked for that had an incentive with the state that they were operating to beat that metric. It was called Service Level, a percent of calls answered within a certain number of seconds.
That became everything. It didn’t matter what kind of service they provided. They just had to drive that metric down because if they got below a certain threshold then they got a big check from the state. So, you can imagine what was happening. Every call they got was answered with:
"Sorry. I can’t help you. Have to send a tech." Click.
It got so bad they ended up having to post somebody from the field service department who could hack onto their software to schedule more appointments. And, you know the good news is they beat their service level targets and got a check from the state which they had to endorse right back because the field service department didn’t meet their goals because they got hit with so much over time.
I’m laughing. It’s such a perverse way of running business with such twisted metrics and metrics in isolation.
Let’s measure the cost of fear to our companies and economy. How much does fear cost?
You know, fear costs companies a fortune in very subtle and different was. It’s very difficult to measure across all the different types of companies we have worked with, exactly how that manifests.
One thing we can do is measure the engagement of the employees. We know from other research that Gallup has done that employee engagement is tied very closely to turnover to market share to all sorts of metrics of financial success.
We went out and did a study of 2600 US working adults and where they stood within these fear barriers. And what we found was shocking.
If we look at those we call ‘prisoners’ and ‘prisoners’ are somebody who is basically trapped. They have very little empowerment, very little freedom and very little time. They don’t have a lot of opportunities and their accountability is all subject to the whim of a manager. Startlingly, half, 1 out of 2, Americans fall into that category. And when that happens employee engagement just drops through the cellar.
That group only averages in the 8th percentile. That means for every one that is better there are 9 that are worse.
On the other hand, when those barriers are removed employee engagement jumps up into the 87th percentile which makes it among the most engaged employees we have studied.
So, this I would say is a necessary condition, if you don’t aggressively address these types of barriers you are done before you start.
Gallup has been doing tremendous work in the area of employee engagement. And, coming up through the frontlines as I did, employee engagement was such an obvious competitive advantage. I’ve always worked in telecom which is basically a commoditized service industry. And the only way we competed was with our employees and their engagement.
Now, there are just tremendous amounts of statistics that show the impact of employee engagement on the bottomline. I’ve had guest on here from Gallup who talk about its impact on revenue per share, revenue growth, cash-flows, etc. Why is it today there’s still so many companies that refuse to embrace the reality that engaged employees deliver better financial results?
You know, that’s a really good question.
To me, it’s really pretty obvious. A company is nothing more than a collection of people. Right? All focused on a particular mission, all focused on a particular goal. And you can drive employees who are unhappy in their jobs to do things.
I don’t know, but I as a customer don’t want to deal with someone who hates their job. It’s pretty obvious when that happens. And what’s even worse is sometimes the disengaged employee will do what I call ‘going native on you’. They’ll just sit there and rant for 10 minutes about what a terrible company it is they work for. Quite frankly, I don’t want to hear it. I take my business elsewhere.
And it’s just plain common sense that if someone is engaged and excited about their job they’re just going to do that much more than someone who is just retired on active duty.
I don’t know, Zane. It’s something that seems obvious.
You start your book profiling an imaginary but still very real character named Joe. Joe's in customer service. I need to ask an awkward question. Have you been stalking me? What you described for Joe is so similar to experiences I've had...it was almost painful to read. And yet, from what you write the imaginary but very real Joe and I aren't alone. You've interviewed thousands of employees in all levels of organizations in all functional areas. They all shared a common theme. Fear of loss. But behind that fear is something endemic. What is it that endemic driver for fear?
You know Zane it’s funny. But it’s actually true. Everyone who reads the story or at least most of the people I know who have, have said:
“ Boy that feels like something I have been through.”
That just shows how pervasive these problems can be.
But, getting to your question: What’s endemic? When we were doing this research, when I was brought in to see why these companies were stuck, we weren’t looking for fear; it was just something I saw. It was like I was looking at the same movie, again and again and again.
The endemic piece of it is this: With the best of intentions these barriers are born. No one comes in trying to destroy their company. But to protect someone somewhere, to avoid that perceived interference from other departments, walls are built. And those walls may protect one part of the process. But some times those walls can get so big then those inside begin to define their world in terms of the piece and not the puzzle.
That puts overall success at risk. It just gets lost.
I'm summarizing your discussion about parochialism but I believe you write that growth is a major catalyst for this fear of loss. This sounds a bit contradictory. Growth is more. Growth is opportunity. On the other hand, growth is a source for fear of loss. Can you bridge that contradiction for us?
Sure. Absolutely. Thank you for asking that question.
The problem isn’t growth itself. The problem is how growth is managed. When growth is poorly managed then that’s where you can start to see parochialism spring up.
And here’s how it happens. Through growth comes a need to divide up responsibilities. The business gets more complex. Suddenly you need to split up your human resource department into a training group and a recruiting group. Maybe you need to divide up sales and marketing, and you need to first limit strategies and tactics and promotions. You start dividing and dividing and you promote people into being in charge of specific little functions.
But great care has to be taken when you do that to make sure your overall focus doesn’t get narrowed as well. So, that the big picture doesn’t get lost in the haze and everyone begins checking off their one little box.
So, growth, of course you want and you need. But, you have to be very strategic and deliberate about how you handle that growth so you don’t see this type of parochialism begin to spring up.
Part Two of this conversation will be published on Saturday, August 27.
Part Three of this conversation will be published on Sunday, August 28.