Fooling with Fear

Will you really get fired?

Main story: He's No Fool (But He Plays One inside Companies)

One word explains why change agents like Paul Birch have to go to such lengths to persuade people to tell the truth: fear. Too many people are afraid too much of the time. "People build up trivial things into life-threatening situations," Birch says. "You know the classic fear: I'll get sacked if I disagree with my boss or if I propose off-the-wall ideas — even if they're good ideas."

Birch likes to tackle fear head-on.. He asks employees to list ideas that they believe would get them fired. Then he works through each item on each list: "Is this really going to get you sacked?" he asks them. "If it might — but it's the seed of a good idea — how could you change it so that you won't get sacked?"

Fear is not the only factor that prevents honesty, Birch adds. Too many companies lack role models for candor, especially at high levels. Employees would be more honest, he believes, if senior executives talked more openly about their own failures: "It's not okay to have a track record of mistakes, but it's okay to make mistakes."

That's why Birch talks so openly about his own mistakes at BA. One time, for example, Birch emailed a director to inform him that people found his manner bullying. This director inadvertently forwarded the message to all of his direct reports, and he was publicly embarrassed. "I burst this guy's ego," Birch says. "That was a mistake."

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