10 January 2018

“We all pretend we are here forever”

Damn. This was pretty spot on. A colleague jokingly told me this me after I’ve announced that I’m leaving my job. But the phrase really itched in my mind. It’s because I intuitively understood it was true, but have never verbalized it before.

Why do we have to put an act to save face, instead of being free to discuss our plans and intentions. There are “good” reasons to so as we stand to lose a lot.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. A company culture is a Nash equilibrium for collaborative and competitive game we all play at work. Our actions converge acting in a certain way and saying only things that we feel are safe to say. And those proverbial “good” reasons, are only good in the context of the current equilibrium.

But it is not the only equilibrium. There is a better equilibrium, where we are free to share opinions, criticism, aspirations and feedback without fear of retaliation. In that equilibrium, colleagues and managers act as comrades, and trust each other. In this equilibrium we are not trying to save face by wearing a mask. In this equilibrium we have an honest face and can express our thoughts and emotions without consequence, and work together happily and effectively. Arguably, even more effectively than in the save-face equilibrium.

But why is save-face a lot more common than “fearless-face”? Because its easy! Eaaaaasy. It takes a lot of effort to maintain fearless-face. Because a fearless-face environment is a lot more turbulent. The temperature is higher, everybody is speaking, everybody is contributing, and everybody has an opinion.

And does everybody agree? No. They don’t! So issues get discussed and frustration can build up. And it is hard not to cross the line from expressing disagreement kindly to doing it in a mean way and hurting others.

In a fearless-face culture, we’re fearless because of the freedom to expression is high, but freedom of retaliation is low. Fearless-face aligns power with freedom of expression. Fearless-face culture relies on relationships and trust. Fearless-face culture does not tolerate abusive behavior or other ways to control through fear.

To transition from save-face to fearless-face, you need to start from the top. You need to start from the people with power who have the options to retaliate in subtle ways, and those people need to commit to not retaliate. By showing examples of such non-retaliation and listening to things slightly outside the comfort zone of their subordinates, they start to gradually disperse the fear. They encourage a culture of candor. Because you cannot be candid if you know that anything you say will be used against you. Miranda warnings are not a way to build trust.

When subordinates start dipping their toes into being candid, and notice the people of power actually listen and reward that, they’ll be braver and braver in the future and share more, providing more useful information, and increasing the overall collaboration. They will break the ice over time and get closer to the fearless face. They will feel at more even ground.

Fearless-face exists in the real world. It happens in situations where all involved are friends or have built trust in a different way. It’s a shortcut. Fearless-face in real world almost never starts as save face. A small company with fearless-face culture would start as a close group of people, before starting the company. Fearless-face can morph into save-face as the company grows, but I’m not sure if the reverse ever happened at all. Fearless-face is intrinsically hard to scale due to cost associated with building the trust.

And we currently lack the tools or skills or incentives to transition from save-face. But I’m optimist. I believe that a fearless-face at scale is more productive. It’s just really, really hard to arrive at it and even harder to maintain. But once someone figures out how to catalyze the transition… they get a great competitive advantage. And over time others will follow.

And even though we might be more productive at work, the biggest gain would be non-material. It would be the increase in happiness and feeling of belonging. Imagine!

Oh that would be swell :) But it might take many generations to build.

Meanwhile, we can take tiny steps, by recognizing when people are honest with us or in society and reward and reinforce those moments of bravery. When someone tells us how they feel, we can listen to them and try to help. When someone shares publicly, and expose themselves to attack we can support them. It might be hard to see, but I believe it will gradually weave more and more fearlessness into our culture.

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