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Fear culture: why every director should read ‘The Fear Culture’ chapter in Shredded

If your organisation uses any form of a “rank and yank” performance management system you should read ‘The fear culture’ chapter in Ian Fraser’s Shredded – Inside RBS, The Bank that Broke Britain.

Fraser provides directors with excellent arguments as to why your board should close down these systems.

First, he quotes American management thinker W. Edwards Deming who said that these performance management programmes result in “conflict, demoralisation, lower productivity, lower quality [and] suppression of innovation”.

Who on your board would push back on you if you quoted this?

Second, he cites Phil Taylor, Professor of Work and Employment Studies at the University of Strathclyde, who wrote Performance Management and The New Workplace Tyranny(2013). He says, “an argument can be made that these performance management practices are not merely unjustifiable on the grounds of welfare, decency, dignity and well-being, but they may also be utterly counterproductive…”

Try quoting that your next board meeting and see how you get on.

Third, he quotes Ron Kerr and Sarah Robinson, both Business and Management lecturers who said, “Within RBS itself, Goodwin’s domination was maintained by economic violence. RBS’s internal culture has been characterised as a culture of fear”.

Fraser writes that Kerr and Robinson “argue that the leadership culture at RBS was quasi-feudal, in that exploiting people’s economic dependence and destroying their economic power lay at its heart”.

Imagine quoting that at your next board meeting. Surely a slam-dunk argument for your board to say ‘you’re right, we’ll scrap our performance management system tomorrow.’

Of course not. You and I know that the proponents of these systems on your board are in no doubt about the arguments against them.

As early as 1991 Deming and others were arguing against them. But as Ian Fraser notes: “…this did not stop rank and yank programmes being adopted in the UK across both public and private sectors”. In my own work facilitating boards and ‘off-sites’ I have heard senior leaders challenge these programmes only to be told that ‘we must have some form of measurement’.

It’s as if a totally discredited system is better than none, in their minds. A zero-sum-game. They cannot imagine, as many companies who have ditched these vile programmes can, that trust is all you need to ‘performance manage’ anyone.

But what if there’s no trust? Surely, your board will argue, we need a system to manage people who don’t ‘behave’?

Your answer to this is that the board doesn’t need a system, it needs to up its leadership game to help people be what they can and should be.

Yeah right, you say. It won’t happen in my organisation. And you’re right, unless you and the people in your organisation who agree with you get together and lobby for change.

It’s not about speaking truth to power, a phrase I’ve never liked. It implies that the powerful never speak the truth and those who want to speak the truth are invariably weak.

You are powerful. You are a director. Just do it.

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