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Monday 18 March 2013

Why a Fear-Based Culture Will Never Drive True Change (John Kotter)

Why a Fear-Based Culture Will Never Drive True Change

John Kotter
John Kotter, Contributor
I help leaders accelerate strategy implementation in organizations.
Is your organization sitting on a “burning platform?”Is your organization sitting on a “burning platform?” Nokia CEO Stephen Elop recently used this term in a memo designed to motivate his employees to make drastic, bold change. But using a crisis to drive change often sends people running for the door instead of raising their hands to help. You shouldn’t use anxiety to drive change. In this conversation, I talk with my colleague Mike Evans about how this approach holds back organizational change and explain those that encourage positive motivation.
Mike Evans: So John, as we’re out there learning from our clients about what they want to achieve, one thing we’re hearing a lot lately is that instead of opportunity-based change, looking for how they can positively impact an organization, many of our clients are dealing with the realities of government regulations, significant changes in their industries, stock prices fluctuating dramatically, and the economic impact of all that. So there is this component around fear-based change, this frenzy that “we have to do something.” How do you see that playing out – what’s the impact of that for an organization?
John Kotter: You see that all over the place; health care is the hot one right now. People are kind of crawling in the bunkers wondering what’s going to come at them next. I can remember years ago, when someone introduced me to the metaphor of the “burning platform.” I admit it, I thought, “that’s really good!” We don’t have a burning platform so everyone is content or complacent to just sit on the platform and not do anything. Then somebody along the way said something along the lines of “John, so let’s get this right. You’re on a platform, somebody pours gasoline all around you and lights a fire, and you will probably get up. But are there any other consequences?” And I said, well I suppose I could burn to death.
The reality is there are real risks associated with this negative stuff. People may jump off the platform but they get tired, or they break an arm, to play out that metaphor. What we’re finding is that psychologists are coming out and saying that the positive stuff will maintain motivation over time much stronger and better than the negative stuff. Sure, the negative can get you going. You see a bullet coming at you, boom! You’ll get off of your chair. But in terms of maintaining energy and motivation over a couple of years, somebody just running from bullets doesn’t work.
Mike Evans: It’s a pretty stressful environment to work in. And you know, the first rats off the ship are the strongest swimmers. What I mean by that is in many organizations when there’s that fear-based culture and there’s that stress and anxiety, your top players, your best key talent can typically be the first to leave. You don’t want that to happen. The other downside of a burning platform is you’re actually burning away your infrastructure as the platform burns. So when we focus on the positive and the possibilities, people come to work naturally wanting to excel and do well, and we can give them clarity on what their opportunity is, not only for the organization but how it’s going to impact them personally as well. How it can benefit them and how it can make their lives better.
People tend to really grasp onto that, and I’d like to say that our work allows people to self-actualize.
John Kotter is the chief innovation officer at Kotter International, a firm that helps leaders accelerate strategy implementation in their organizations. He is also the Konosuke Matsushita Professor of Leadership, Emeritus, at Harvard Business School.

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