Reversing A Team’s Culture Of Fear
28 June, 2018
I joined a company making software for large distributors such as French supermarkets. The company wanted me to work on the next generation of their product. However, my manager told me that before working on the new product, I should work on some old products, in order to learn how the company worked. From day one, I was really amazed by the problems within the company. There were about 50 people in the product team working on the legacy product, and they hadn't been able to do a single release in the last 12 months. While they had tried, each time they had created more problems and ended up with a lot of big bugs.
I quickly identified that the general culture of the team and the company was off. The CEO was always putting blame on other people, so he had created a culture of blame and of fear across the organization. People spent more than half their time justifying what they had done and preparing to justify what they had done in case they needed to protect themselves in the future. I decided I needed to take action. Firstly, I decided not to join the new product team that they wanted to launch. Instead, I told the company I thought I could bring a lot of value to the company by working on the legacy product. My one request was that I would be left alone to get on with my work. The CTO was thrilled that I had taken on the old product and was happy not to hear about it anymore, so agreed. I then told my team that from now one the only guilty person would be me. Whatever the problem, if we had to blame someone it would be me. I had to really push this message a number of times because it takes time for a message like this to really resonate when such a big culture of fear has been fostered. I would also jump in and protect my team members whenever someone external to the team tried to blame them.
This approach was really effective. The team felt they were safe and could, therefore, collaborate together. When faced with this type of situation, it's really important to ensure that your team feels safe. They should have the right to be wrong and make mistakes at times because this is how they learn and grow.
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