Fear is Undermining Your PMO Success
Contrary to popular belief, Fear is truly destroying PMOs and it’s terrible to see. The scariest thing is fear can debilitate your PMO in just 3 steps!
PMO kicks off & achieves early success.
-> One or more Deadly Fears infect the team(s).
–>The PMO clamours up and falls into a cultural rut.
The Deadly 7
‘The Deadly 7’ – it sounds like a league of super-villains.
“Ah, you may have foiled us today Batman, but the Deadly 7 will get you next time!”
Thankfully, this group of 7 don’t wield super-powers. Their power instead comes from their insidious ability to stifle innovation, lower work engagement and diminish productivity.
The Deadly 7 are also scarily commonplace. As we work through each of the fears, take a moment to reflect on whether you have seen that fear play out in your career; either felt directly yourself, or vicariously through a colleague. I suspect that you will have seen most, if not all, of these fears at play. Let’s briefly explore each one.
1. A Fear of Being Cut Down (Tall Poppy)
Our first fear is one that is particularly prevalent in my home country of Australia; Tall Poppy Syndrome.
Supposedly coined sometime in 1964, ‘Tall Poppy Syndrome’ is the levelling derision of anyone who thinks they should stand higher than everyone else. There are many claims to its origins, but I suspect that its roots in Australian culture formed as a rejection of the class structure inherited from our English heritage.
Tall Poppy is a great equaliser but suffers a major issue. More often than not, cultures that embrace a Tall Poppy mentality end up cutting down any person who seeks to be a standout success.
The net result of a team or individual suffering from this fear is an aversion to risk, not because they are afraid of the risk going wrong – but rather they are afraid of the risk going right!
No risk taking = stifled innovation, lower engagement, and diminished productivity.
2. A Fear of Meaningless Work
Anyone that has worked in a large, bureaucratic organisation likely knows the feeling all too well.
It’s late on a Friday afternoon. You start packing your bag when a last-minute work request comes in. You sit back down, unpack, and start pulling it together. You even cash in some favours with your colleagues to get it done.
…Time passes, and you miss your social plans. But that’s ok, because this work was urgently needed.
Finally, you complete your review, attach the document, and send the email. With a sigh of relief, you again pack your bags and enjoy your well earned weekend – only to come in on Monday and find out that:
“That last minute report? Oh, that was bumped from the agenda.”
No one even looked at it.
Yet another piece of work that will sit in a digital file, gathering digital dust. Never to be seen or used again.
It’s a story that I’ve both lived and witnessed too many times.
This fear creates two major issues. The first, and most obvious – there is a notable amount of wasted work effort. Work effort that could be spent on other, more useful things. I do a lot of work with public sector organisations, and this is a huge problem in all of them. I haven’t run the numbers, but I wouldn’t be surprised if hundreds of thousands of staff hours are burned each year on examples just like the one above.
However, it’s the second issue that is more insidious. Experiences like the one above create organisational cynics. The cynicism is a mechanism to hide the underlying fear – a fear of caring enough about something to put in the work, only for it to end up meaningless.
This protective cynicism isn’t healthy. It’s not selectively applied, and its often directed towards all work as it can be hard to tell ahead of time which bit of work will be ignored.
The net result again is an aversion to risk, stifled innovation, lower engagement, and diminished productivity.
3. A Fear of Insufficient Skill
Like the fears that came before it, a fear of insufficient skill is often masked by other protective personas, the most common being cynicism or a ‘holier than thou’ approach. The individual experiencing this fear often deploys distractions to divert attention from their own ability, or lack thereof.
The essence of the fear is simple – it’s a fear of not being skilled enough to succeed. If an individual doesn’t feel they are ‘good enough’ then that individual won’t expose themselves to a risk they are sure they will fail.
Again, this fear creates a risk aversion, stifling innovation and lowering work engagement.
4. A Fear of Being Taken Advantage Of
Interestingly, the opposite to insufficient skill is also a catalyst for a fear – a fear of being taken advantage of. Anyone who is high in skill but low in assertiveness is particularly at risk here.
This fear is epitomised by the character ‘Milton’ from the 1999 cult-hit film Officespace. For those that haven’t seen the film – Milton has an inability to firmly say no. Unfortunately, this means he ends up with both a stapler and desk that he doesn’t want.
Thankfully, Milton is an extreme case, but like all good comedy, Officespace draws its inspirations from reality. When someone is scared they will be taken advantage of, they will often hide their talent, doing just enough to get by. Or, if their talent becomes known, they will work begrudgingly, lowering both productivity and innovation.
5. A Fear of Trespassing Norms
This fear is firmly rooted in your organisational culture. In short, your cultural status quo is a worthy adversary for any innovative mind. If the status quo is one that is risk adverse, or one that doesn’t promote honest and open discussion, then your team(s) are unlikely to challenge ideas or overtly drive improvement for fear of being the labelled the ‘weird one’.
6. A Fear of Embarrassment
A rather self-explanatory fear – a fear of embarrassment is a natural result of a lack of skill or cultural-fit.
No one likes being embarrassed, so they will avoid situations that place them at risk of being so.
7. A Fear of Personal Non-Alignment
This fear is a little different from the previous 6 and seems to be a much more modern phenomenon.
With the expansion of motivational speakers, personal coaches and an endless stream of aspirational content delivered to us through the internet – there is an increasing desire to ‘do something fulfilling’. While this is a valiant goal for us all to seek, unfortunately for many, doing something fulfilling is rooted firmly in fantasy, i.e., all passion, no challenge.
This shift in desire has introduced a new fear into our workplaces – a fear of personal non-alignment. Simply put, a fear of personal non-alignment is when someone holds themselves back from giving any more than, say, 60% of their effort into their work because they are concerned it is ‘not one of their passions’.
There are three key drivers underlying this fear:
- A desire to avoid living a sub-standard life (against a glamourous but unrealistic social media benchmark).
- A desire to live one’s passions, but without any clear idea of what those passions actually are, and
- A worry that one may well be genuinely talented at ‘boring work’… if one is good at boring work, then does that mean that they themselves are boring?
Interestingly, despite its recent origins, the end result of this fear is again a lack of engagement, risk aversion and stifled innovation. After all, who wants to put in extra effort into something that isn’t ‘speaking to them personally’?
Countering the Deadly 7
Now, reader, you may have noticed something about each of the Deadly 7.
Each fear resulted in
- stifled innovation,
- lower engagement, and
- diminished productivity.
This means that our approach to counter this 7 is to proactively counter these cultural shifts. We do this through normalisation of failure, success and meaning.
Let me share with you how I tend to do this.
First, reader, I have a question for you. When was the last time you truly failed? By this I mean gut wrenching, plate smashing, sleep destroying failure.
Has it been a while, or perhaps it’s fresh and you are still sore from it? Either way, I bet you learned something valuable that you now share with others.
This is acute failure.
Acute failure is useful. We tend to create real behavioural shifts from it because we are often forced to. Acute failure is effective – but acute failure is expensive.
Interestingly, acute failure is what we often think about when we think of failure. So, when someone says to you that you should ‘embrace failure’, most of the time people tend to think of recovering better from acute failure.
But, what about the other type of failure? The subtle, everyday stuff. The comment that went over wrong at the meeting yesterday. The workshop that went 30 minutes overtime. The decision to buy fast food instead of bringing something pre-prepared from home.
Subtle failure is insidious, it adds up, but it doesn’t cause notable change. It lingers. Subtle failures hardly ever see the light of day. No reflection, no storytelling, no growth.
This is the stuff that often slowly undermines your teams. As we build our High Value PMOs, it is this subtle failure that we need to try to normalise.
Here’s how I often do it. I create a ‘reflection point’ at the end of a day or week to provide the space and opportunity for your team(s) to expose the subtle failures. Its agenda typically looks something like this:
1) Tell us all a story of something that went terribly wrong today/this week, and some quick advice for your teammates from that experience. (30-45 seconds max per person).
However, it’s the follow-up activity that’s really powerful here. After the reflection point, write everyone’s advice on a white board (or similar) that is visible to them for the following day/week.
Ensure the session is lighthearted, and that everyone gets a chance to share.
Through the simple act of exposure, storytelling and a little public accountability, failure becomes normal. When failure is normal, then there is far less to fear.
Similar to normalising failure, we need to normalise success.
This is because a High Value PMO needs to be consistently pursuing success. This consistent pursuit often means going against the grain. When you are rowing upstream, your team(s) need to have the open and ongoing support of their colleagues.
So, to normalise success, I like to use a simple team gathering. It’s a celebration of sorts – I call these ‘Blow Your Own Horn’ sessions.
A Blow Your Own Horn (BYOH) session is a regular opportunity for your teams to meet and safely discuss the achievements they are most proud of that week.
The rules for a BYOH session are simple:
- Only one person speaks at a time.
- Everyone must share at least one thing they are proud of that week.
- They should speak boldly and be free to boast. Storytelling and hyperbole are acceptable.
- These are not feedback sessions, successes are celebrated, never refuted.
As you roll these out, there will be an initial awkwardness over the first few meetings as people adjust to the new self-promotional norm. This is where you, as a leader, must lead by example. Be candid and bold with what you share.
BYOH sessions attack the fears within your teams by providing them each social permission to grow.
The final thing we must normalise is meaning, i.e., we must ensure our team(s) see the connection between their work and the broader vision and purpose.
Put another way, your team needs to deeply understand why they are doing what they are doing.
So, how do we normalise meaning?
Interestingly we do so through a blend of techniques that we have already explored in this Guide.
First, we create connection through our upfront and collaborative client co-design sessions.
Next, when building and assigning key tasks, we ensure that the ‘So-What’ is clearly defined and is openly discussed.
Finally, we should find ways to create organisational exposure for the meaningful work your High Value PMO is doing. This means identifying ways to mark and celebrate meaningful accomplishments.
You can also consider piggy-backing on your BYOH sessions by asking your team(s) to answer a so-what question on their personal weekly achievement. As quick example: if the celebration is
‘I found a way to eliminate half of the fields in one of our forms this week.’
then the ‘so what’ is
‘which means that our project managers will spend less time each month filling them out’.
This type of ‘so what’ thinking regularly reconnects your team(s) with the greater client need they are helping solve.
A Final Note on Fear
Fear is normal and should be expected. The type of fear your High Value PMO will encounter will depend on your organisation’s culture. However, as we have just discussed, fear doesn’t have to be a death sentence for your PMO. Promote continued innovation, engagement and productivity by using the techniques we’ve discussed throughout this guide. In particular, ensure you normalise failure, success and meaning within your team(s).
This is a excerpt from Creating High Value PMOs: Your Essential Guide.