Cover Story



What are you afraid of?

Five fears preventing continuous improvement.

By  Joakim Ahlström

Do you have the courage to confront your fears? If you don’t they will subconsciously influence your decisions and actions. These five fears are particularly important to acknowledge if you want to succeed with continuous improvement:

■ Fear of power loss
■ Fear of regret
■ Fear of losing face
■ Fear of falling behind
■ Fear of losing friends

When these fears are prevalent, openness and creativity are replaced by “watching your back” and “looking good,” and when those drive you, you will never truly succeed.

Fear #1 – Fear of power loss
Do you have the courage to distribute decision-making power and ability in your organization or are you afraid your colleagues will prove to be at least as capable as you are?

Driven by fear of losing it, managers will hold on to power by centralizing decision-making and hoarding information. When this is the case the majority will never be given an honest chance to contribute to continuous improvement.

The courageous know that true power is gained by sharing knowledge, not hoarding it. Only the courageous can access the full power of their organization, because only when you let go of your fear of losing power will you be able to launch a way of working with continuous improvement where everyone is empowered to engage.

Fear #2 – Fear of regret
Do you have the courage to let go of your point of view or are you afraid that taking another perspective will make your previous choices appear less than optimal?

From time to time I hear people asking, “Why didn’t we do this earlier?” To me, the question has a simple answer: “Because you didn’t know then what you know now.” Your decision to change is in fact a sign of learning that should be celebrated and not a reason for regret. 

When fear of regret becomes overwhelming you will defend the perspective that makes your previous choices seem rational. Unfortunately, by defending your history you also prevent yourself from creating a better future.

The courageous accept what is and let go of what was to create the future they desire. Only the courageous can change their perspective without fear of regret, since they know that they have done and will do the best of they can in every situation. Without fear of regret you will go from defending your own viewpoint to sharing each other’s perspective, and only then will you learn from each other and give yourselves optimal conditions for creating the future you truly desire.

Fear #3 – Fear of losing face
Do you have the courage to stop window dressing and point out the purposeless activities you see or are you afraid of being put in the naughty corner?

In the short tale “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” two weavers promise an Emperor a new suit of clothes that is invisible to those unfit for their positions, stupid, or incompetent. When the Emperor parades before his subjects in his new clothes, it takes the untainted mind of a child to point out the obvious fact that the emperor is naked. When you see the kind of behavior the tale illustrates in an organization, you know that fear of losing face is in the air. When it is, you will hear a lot of talk about following routines and preparing for audits, but not as much about shared purposes and customer needs. This is a sign that the original intention of things has been lost and that you have started doing them for their own sake.

The courageous know that the truth may hurt for a while but a lie hurts forever. Only the courageous dare to ask questions such as: “Why are we measuring this?” “What is the purpose of this meeting?” and “How does this improve our performance?” When you’re not afraid to lose face you can stop unnecessary window dressing activities and spend your energy on important improvement initiatives instead.

Fear #4 – Fear of falling behind
Do you have the courage to take time to reflect and try to find a smarter way or are you afraid that will make you fall behind?

Recently a friend only half-jokingly told me that the best way to get some time to think at his workplace was to walk quickly through their big office space. If he did, people would assume he was in a hurry to an important meeting and would not throw a pointless assignment at him. If the fear of falling behind is widespread in an organization, the main focus will be to do as much as possible as quickly as possible. What you do is secondary. In this environment a pile of papers on your desk and a lot of unanswered emails are almost considered status symbols. They show that you have a lot to do and that people should leave you alone.

The courageous know that even if they win the rat race they are still just rats. Only the courageous will be able to see that running does you no good if you are heading in the wrong direction. When you let go of your fear of falling behind, you will be able to stop focusing on short term productivity and spend some time on the strategic initiatives you “never had the time address because of all the firefighting.” That’s when your improvement work can become the growth strategy it is supposed to be.

Fear #5 – Fear of losing friends

Do you have the courage to hold your colleagues accountable or are you afraid to ruin your artificially cheerful relationship?

In organizations where fear of losing friends is in the air, people are afraid of expecting too much of each other. Instead they tiptoe around one another to avoid ruining the friendly but artificially blithesome atmosphere.

The courageous address people’s desire to utilize their full potential. Only the courageous realize that true friendship is about expecting the very best of one another rather than allowing each other to be lesser versions of ourselves. When you let go of your fear of losing friends you can start helping your colleagues to utilize their full potential and their strengths. The effect will be improved results, people who grow and superficial friendships turning into deep and mutual trust.

Fear will either stop you or strengthen you
Without the courage to confront these five fears, you will never get down to the true root cause of many of your problems, and they will stay with you and forever prevent you from succeeding.

Remember that your fears, like vampires, will lose their power when they are exposed to the light. The courage to talk openly about these five fears will be rewarded with true power, satisfaction, recognition, peace of mind, rewarding relationships and, last but not least, a foundation for truly succeeding with continuous improvement.

Joakim Ahlstöm is the author of How to Succeed with Continuous Improvement: A Primer for Becoming the Best in the World, available at Amazon; for more information, please visit www.succeedwithci.com.