Safety in small pictures – how fear of uncertainty can destroy companies

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Picture this – a CEO who personally takes charge of Christmas card designs, cleanliness of company premises, and other irrelevant minutiae while his organisation spirals towards a £45bn super loss.

This was a very public example – former RBS CEO, Fred ‘the Shred’ . ‘Fred the Shred’ is probably one of most extreme examples. However, I have come across a good number of Fred the Shred’s in waiting in my career who prioritised low-grade, routine and low value activities over strategic decision-making.

Here are two other examples:

Example 1: Travel requisitions more important than strategic decision-making: 

A board member of large global corporation personally signed off every single business travel request to save costs. He completely ignored daily wasted effort, low employee productivity, and lack of innovation in their main site, which by far outweighed any cost savings the company could ever make through travel monitoring.

The organisation found itself in a downward spiral the year after.

Example 2: Colour schemes prioritised over customer need:

A senior management team member used to tear up– literally – the full presentation where he did not like the colour scheme or the first pages, and not focus on customer requirements and real content issues.

Loss of sales and increase in customer complaints were the result.

This can happen at all leadership levels: CEO, Board, Vice President, senior and middle management.

Leaders take on and overemphasize activities that are irrelevant to the company’s success. They ignore and don’t pay attention to what really matters at their level, until disaster strikes. By that time, valuable resources have been wasted, team members have disengaged, and the bottom-line may have already taken a significant hit.

Whilst any of this is not always immediately a sign that the organisation is sliding towards major bottom-line challenges, it is an indicator that things are not right. The downward spiral has begun.

Why does this happen?

Making sense of ambiguity and uncertainty for themselves and others is a quality that all great leaders share. Whilst most leaders experience feelings of being unsettled, lack of safety or even fear when confronted with the unknown, or decision-making in an unstable environment, they are able to centre themselves and decide from a place of inner strength and grounding.

Leaders who enter the downward spiral of “safety in small pictures” tend to have at least four things in common:

Stress

They are stressed, and chronically so. They tend to feel overwhelmed and often believe that they have to pay attention to everything, otherwise it is not going to get done. And, they have never learnt how to manage and release stress, let alone how to neutralise those things that trigger the stress response.

Need for Control

They have a need for control, of themselves, of others and the environment. Not being in control causes a lot of negative emotions. They also tend to have a lot of tensions or numbness in their body.

Obsession

They have obsessive tendencies, i.e. they cannot easily let go of thoughts and emotions. The perceived threat and the need for control can feel like a broken record in their head and body. Adapting personal habits and preferred behaviours – especially those behaviours that cause the problem.

Limiting Beliefs

They are plagued by often unconscious or unacknowledged limiting beliefs such as “I am not good enough”, “I am a fraud”, or “I am alone”. These limiting beliefs and their attached emotional load e.g. fear, anxiety, anger, resentment, guilt and shame are amplified by stress. And the more stress the higher the emotional charge that is triggered by an event that is perceived as threatening.

Minutiae represent certainty and safety

Surrounding oneself with minutiae, focussing on what is known, and what can easily be controlled, is a mechanism to feel safe in an environment that appears threatening, ambiguous, and overwhelming. Getting the minutiae right, especially ones that don’t matter much if they turn out wrong, gives these leaders a feeling of being on top of things and there is no threat of failure.

I feel compassion for Fred the Shred and other leaders who have entered the vicious and often unconscious cycle of “safety in small pictures”. It probably felt like being on an unstoppable, downward spiral of feeling unsupported and under threat – most likely – every minute of the day.

How to break the cycle of fear

There are several ways to break the cycle, the easiest is to work with someone who has been there, done that and has the training – and toolkit – to help people transform deep-rooted fears, limiting beliefs at identity level and recurring emotional stress patterns.

Engage an experienced coach

Ideally, leaders who experience the “safety in small pictures” syndrome and become aware of something not being quite right, should hire an experienced coach/therapist who

  • is able to hold up the mirror on their behaviour without judgement to create awareness of the cycle they are in,
  • understands what is going on for them, and
  • can help them make the required shifts.

Not everyone will be able and willing to hire a good coach/therapist immediately, so here are a number of immediate steps anyone can take that will help them stop the downward spiral of the “safety in small pictures” or any chronic stress cycle:

Build Self-awareness

Awareness is the first step to stopping any vicious cycle. Starting a self-reflective practice each day noticing what’s happening the body, what emotions are present and what thoughts are connected to these emotions.

Breathe out stress overload

Establish a mindful breathing practice where the inbreath is the same length as the outbreath, for 10 minutes each morning and evening, to start reducing the accumulated stress in the body and calming the nervous system.

Mindfulness or meditation practice

Focussing and calming the mind through a regular meditative practice. There are very good meditation and mindfulness classes, videos, or books available that are easy to follow.

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