Marginalizing Talent With a Culture of Fear

Some years ago, I was hired for an executive position in a healthcare organization, and it was strongly suggested to me that I “get rid” of one of my direct reports, a woman — I’ll call her Grace — who was generally viewed as problematic.

As I reviewed Grace’s files and met with her in person, I was baffled. She was well-spoken and presented herself impeccably. She had a degree from a prestigious university and was knowledgeable on community issues relevant to her job. Her job performance was unimpeachable. Perhaps most mystifying of all, Grace served on several boards and had good relationships with many of the city’s movers and shakers — presumably an asset for a community-based company. 

And yet Grace had been “sidelined.” She was regularly excluded from good projects and committees where her talents would have been additive. Her work went unappreciated and she was consistently passed over for advancement. Her desk was placed in a spot where she could not speak to others confidentially, as required by her position — forcing her to hold many personal meetings off-site. Professionally, she was in the boneyard. 

The mystery was why. Why was Grace being marginalized? Yes, she was a woman, and yes she was a person of color, so it’s possible that either — or both — of those factors could have played a role. She was also someone who spoke her mind, which some might have found challenging. But as I explored the situation more thoroughly, I became convinced that the real reason for her treatment was that she was perceived as a threat. 

Grace was a “star,” and some people didn’t like that. 

This dynamic is all too common in organizations. Why would management stifle talents that could so clearly be beneficial to a company?

Fear is perhaps the main culprit. Managers fear being outshone, or even replaced, by bright talent. They fear looking bad by comparison. The greater the level of fear that permeates an organization — fear of replacement, fear of castigation, fear of job loss — the more self-protective people become and the likelier they are to regard others as threats. 

If fear is affecting the decision-making of your management team, you have an organizational problem. To allow talent to be marginalized, because of fear, is to clip an organization’s wings rather than enable it to soar. 

The Costs of Fear

The costs of sidelining talented employees are enormous. First of all are the opportunity costs. Grace, for example, represented a veritable goldmine of untapped potential for her company. Then there is the problem that when people are marginalized, they become disengaged. Much research has been published in recent years on the high costs of workplace disengagement; I won’t repeat it here. Underutilized people can also become downright destructive to an organization’s culture and goals. Creative energy untapped tends to turn in negative directions. 

Conversely, a company that maximizes its talents operates at “super-capacity” and can accomplish astonishing things on modest budgets. The New England Patriots (whether you are a fan or a hater) are a great example of this. Each year, they start with the same salary-capped budget as every other team, from which they must hire their players. But then they carefully analyze each player’s talents and design their game-planning, coaching, and playbook to take fullest advantage of as many of those talents as possible, even if it means using players in unconventional ways. Their unprecedented 20-year winning streak is the result. 

If fear is being used as a motivational tool in your company, then it’s likely some of your talent is being marginalized. Managers who feel they must constantly prove their worth for fear of negative consequences become motivated by self-interest rather than by helping the company excel as a whole. And they naturally view anyone who might outshine them as competition. 

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Ending a Culture of Fear

There are several things you can do as a leader to remove fear from your organization.

Start building a culture of positive, rather than negative, reinforcement. Create incentives by which managers and employees tangibly share in the success of the company as a whole. Emphasize that the route to company success is by working as a unified team in which everyone is pulling in the same direction — and that the way to build a winning team is by maximizing everyone’s talents, not marginalizing them. 

Reward managers for bringing talent forward. Set time aside, in weekly or monthly management meetings, to encourage and incentivize managers to talk up their talented team members. Brainstorm, as a management team, about the best way to use those talents within the company. Consider using talent in cross-departmental ways. 

Establish direct communication with employees. Encourage people to approach upper management directly if they feel their talents are not being fully utilized. Provide mechanisms by which employees can report hidden talents of themselves or co-workers. 

Reward risk-taking and tolerate failure. Celebrate creative initiatives within teams, especially those that use team members’ talents in new ways. Make it clear that failure will not be punished but will be used as a guidance mechanism. Shift the focus away from, “If you mess this up, heads will roll” to “We support you in trying new things with your team — knock our socks off.” 

When talent is marginalized, everyone loses. When talent is maximized, everyone wins. It is your job, as a leader, to communicate this message from top to bottom of your organization. 

Ritch K. Eich, Ph.D. (Michigan), former hospital executive at St. Joseph Mercy Hospital System (Ann Arbor) and IU Medical Center (Indianapolis) and captain, U.S. Naval Reserve (ret), is the author of five leadership books. The most recent is Leading with GRIT, GRACE & GRATITUDE: Timeless Lessons for Life. Eich has served on more than a dozen boards of directors and trustees of both for-profit and non-profit organizations across the United States He has served on Congressional committees for U.S. Senators Carl Levin and Dan Coats.

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