When investors take stake in a company, they are quick to identify what might diminish the value of their investment: Antiquated equipment, excess space, obsolete mission, a culture at odds with the mission, or lastly employees unskilled in a new mission’s workforce needs.
All well and good. But there are two things, often overlooked, that can doom the investment.
Fear under the Radar
One of the most dangerous aspects to overlook is fear – the workplace fears of the company’s people, management and workers alike.
It’s hard to blame investors for missing the signs. Fear is a scorned workplace emotion, so naturally people have learned to conceal it. They deny it, suppress it, or call it by other more acceptable names. They are “concerned.” Or skeptical. Pragmatic. Cautious.
I used to be pretty good at denying my own fears. As time went on and I wasn’t doing things I really wanted to do, I realized how corrosive fear was to my ambitions. I was finding excuses for not doing things because they were daunting. (See, I’m still using euphemisms!) It was a real relief to learn to look hard at those excuses, hold them up to the light, and find the fear they hid, name it, get rid of it, and move forward. Instead of a habit of fear denial, I developed a habit of fear eradication, and it has made all the difference.
I’m also familiar with fear-denial because of research we have done. We ask executives why change initiatives fail so often. We don’t mention the word fear, but they do – immediately. In their first sentence 84% ascribe the problem to fear.
Fear of what? Their answers make it clear that fear flies under many flags: fear about the future, of the unknown, of loss, of failure, of confrontation, of change.
Why does fear matter so much? Because fear is powerful. It consumes energy. It impedes learning. It makes people shrink, step back, avoid risk. It can paralyze.
How can investors assess a company’s fear quotient? When they talk to managers and workers, do people speak up? Are they willing to tell bad news even about their own areas? Do they own up to mistakes? How have past mistakes come to light? Do people make excuses? Individuals may be good at hiding their fears, but if you know the signs to look for, there’s nothing invisible about a culture of fear. It shows up in people’s faces, posture, and body language. Lots of closed doors and whispered conversations. Lots of bluff talk, finger-pointing, and little camaraderie.
Culture of Distractions and Interruptions
The other aspect that often gets overlooked in an acquired company is what I call the concentration quotient. Simply put, are people buffeted by a culture of interruptions and distractions, leaving them unable to concentrate at work? This is a serious concern. In my work, I regularly ask our clients to estimate how much time they lose to interruptions and distractions. They are uniformly amazed to discover that it comes to three to five hours a day!
And on top of the wasted time, a distracting environment produces some pretty frustrated employees. They can’t get their work done in the time it should take, and they can’t achieve the quality it needs and they want.
Investors can assess: If the company has an open-office floor plan, does it provide sufficient private space for workers when they need it? What’s the ambient noise level? We all know white noise is a good thing, but are there a lot of sights and sounds that are deliberately designed to get one’s attention – elevators dinging, phones ringing, alerts sounding, lights flashing?
Nor is it hard to discover whether people routinely interrupt one another at work. One of the biggest time killers is that innocuous, “Got a minute?” Almost everybody feels they have too much to do and not enough time to do it, yet they feel obliged to answer, “Sure, how can I help?” I call these “Time Bandits” because they steal employees’ precious assets – their time.
Learning to Conquer Fear and Recover Time
The good news is that both of these hidden threats can be addressed with positive results for the value of the investment.
In both cases, it starts with bringing the problems into the open. In the case of fear, people need to be encouraged to see their own fears, to understand that they are natural – that everyone, no matter how wise, charming, or ambitious, is vulnerable to their own particular set of fears, whether these fears spring from inside or from external causes. In the case of distractions and interruptions, people need to be encouraged to monitor their activity for a couple of days and see how often their efforts to concentrate are foiled by their environment or other people.
From there it is but a short step for some powerful realizations to set in. People begin to see what both situations cost them. They see how their fears weaken their work, diminish their relationships, and prevent them from realizing their potential. They see how much time and energy, both already in short supply, they lose to distractions and interruptions. And when costs become clear, people are primed to remedy the situations.
The process for conquering fears isn’t an overnight one, of course. Its steps include: encouraging people first with a vision for how work/life will be different when they conquer their fears; learning to take small risks, absorb the fallout, and then take slightly bigger risks; some upskilling where needed or even retraining in the basics so that they realize their value; polishing their communications skills so that they don’t fear situations where they realize good communicators will prevail; preparing them to accept and deal with change, since change is one of the most feared situations for most people; enlisting a trusted colleague or two to help them work on their fears and frankly point out any backsliding; and learning to accept that even if most fears are conquered, sometimes fear will strike, so just accept it – even joke about it – and don’t let it become paralyzing or destructive.
The process for teaching people to “create surplus time” is just as powerful. It involves: deterring interruptions by creating a mutual value proposition for those who would interrupt them; carving out uninterrupted time to do work that requires close concentration – called Time Locking; learning proven techniques for preventing what I call Mental Leakage – their own predilection for mind wandering when they wish to concentrate; determining what on their to-do lists should be treated as their Critical Few, and which as their Minor Many, since our work indicates people often misuse their time by failing to make such distinctions; and finally, developing a plan for allocating their recovered time wisely.
Think of the first process as creating courage, and the second as creating time. Courageous workers with more time to attend to their priorities — now that’s added value for investors!
Image credit: CC by Robert Couse-Baker