The Mire of Security

Judith M. Bardwick, Ph.D.


Whether in terms of an institution or an individual, if there’s a lot of anxiety about risks, then the core motive is to gain security by avoiding failure. That becomes more important than achieving major breakthrough. Over time, the culture and practices and procedures all develop in ways that unconsciously are designed to avoid failure. That includes:


  • Informally guaranteed tenure for everyone.
  • An appraisal system without teeth.
  • No negative feedback.
  • A promotion system independent of individual merit.
  • A culture in which competition is prohibited.
  • A compensation system that doesn’t reflect what people do.
  • Fixed rules to determine what’s right or wrong.
  • Committees without authority to decide what’s good or bad.
  • A style of consensus with no disagreement.
  • Rewarding system players because initiators are scary.
  • Leaders who are conservative.
  • Layers and layers of a person whose primary job is to check and recheck to make sure that no mistakes can be made.

In organizations that are very hierarchical, many people become passive. When the ladder is very tall, and status is very important, people wait to be told what to do and then wait to be told how well they did it. It’s like a long line of penguins, all dressed for success, waddling with confidence. But, while the PA system in the background is saying, “Initiate. Confront. Lead. Innovate!,” all eyes are skyward waiting, I am impressed and distressed at how passive hierarchical organizations make people. There’s often a lot of activity, but its busyness; it’s not going anywhere; its game playing. It’s play acting at work.

The acquisition of whole new businesses and the sale of others wipes out any sense of security. Instead of a generally orderly growth of business, we’ve moved into an era of violent change as corporations respond to international competition, a global financial system, and Wall Street-driven dynamics, extremely costly, so it frequently results in efforts to create psychological security by avoiding risk.   Naturally, many people feel very anxious. They don’t know what’s going to happen to them and they don’t have much control over it either. Uncertainty leads to anxiety. Unremitting anxiety is psychologically while mouths talk about progress and innovation, nobody gives a damn because nothing happens as a result of what you do or don’t do. There is an optimum point on the anxiety curve. Too little and people are not motivated to perform; too much and they’re unable to perform. In the latter case, some of our organizations now embody enough anxiety that people are in the panic end of that curve. Mergers, restructuring, downsizing, cautious, passive and resisting change. We see that when people resist innovations, fight to keep their turf, fight to keep things the way they’ve always been.

Thus, institutions cannot prosper when their people either are too secure or when they are too frightened. People need the manageable amount of anxiety that comes from having responsibilities and being accountable for achieving results. When they achieve, something good should happen. When they don’t, something negative should happen.

People and organizations develop a sense of vibrancy when they are in the mid-range of anxiety. Organizational survival requires that that’s where they be. In young, fast-growing organizations, the situation itself creates that mid-range. In mature organizations, it has to be managed; it has to be created. How? Turning a mature, stable organization back into a vibrant one requires overt acts by top management. Executives must do some fine-tuning. First, they must determine where the organization is in terms of anxiety or apathy. If the mood is primarily apathetic, some level of tension must be constructed. That’s done by creating significant positive or negative outcomes as a result of performance.

There has to be an institutional response to what people do and that response must have some clout.  If the mood is overly anxious, then anxiety must be reduced by lowering uncertainty. Very simply, uncertainty is reduced when people are told what’s going on and what will happen to them. In the “no news” vacuum, people imagine the worst. Good news or bad, honesty is the best policy.

If the basic emotional tone of the organization has been altered through dramatic change, a period of decompression or consolidation, of getting back on keel, is necessary. The object of this period is to allow emotion to level off. In this transition state, the survivors, those who made it through the changes, may need a lot of supportive attention.

After the emotional level is brought closer to the midpoint, the organization must create a future for itself and for its employees. Fresh institutional goals or an organizational vision must be formulated, articulated, and broadcast with missionary enthusiasm. The goals must be clear, worthwhile, and measureable and achievable. This is the beginning of the transition from institutional defensiveness to organizational initiative.

Forward momentum results when managers give employees short-term goals which are definitely and swiftly achievable and when executives create long- term wins. Employees need to know where they’re heading, what’s happening, and the strategies that have been designed to get them there. As accomplishments are achieved, they must be loudly publicized and the achievers have to be visibly rewarded.


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