Leaning Towers, Umbrellas & Creating Cultures of Fear & Alienation

Leaning Towers, Umbrellas & Creating Cultures of Fear & Alienation

Several years ago, my wife and I were fortunate enough to embark on a Mediterranean Cruise with an organization I worked for at the time. One of the excursions was to the iconic Leaning Tower of Pisa in Italy. Getting there took some steps. A bus ride led to a shuttle ride which led to a long walk until, finally, we were standing in front of the tower. We had been told we’d have thirty minutes to explore before meeting back at a designated spot to head back to the shuttle.

So, the two of us wandered. First, to the bathroom where we had the unfamiliar experience of paying an attendant for the pleasure of getting bladder relief and then to the various booths that lined the street. About twenty minutes in, we had seen all we had to see and ventured back to the meeting spot. Five minutes passed, then ten. Eventually, we realized that no familiar faces were congregating to go back to the shuttle.

Just as our nerves began to set in, it started to rain. Umbrellas opened over hundreds of heads. That’s when we really had our Oh, Shit! moment. Prepared for the rain, everyone in our group was given an umbrella by the cruise line, all of which shared the same distinct colors. Those colors were nowhere to be seen.

Yes, we panicked and quickly rushed back towards the shuttle. At least, we hoped we were rushing back to the shuttle because we had paid little attention when initially being one of the herds on the initial trek to the tower. Who would have thought just mindlessly following the heard would have consequences, right?

When we did make it to the shuttles, ours had already left and we spoke English in a sea of other languages, further increasing our panic. Fortunately, a guide from another group who spoke English helped get us back to the bus where we were met with angry stares from all those who had been kept waiting. Apparently, our guide had changed the time allotted to fifteen minutes and we hadn’t gotten the memo.

How does this relate to people being engaged at work?

Our Italian distress was based on the same thing that causes most workplace disengagement: Powerlessness. We were left in an unfamiliar place, not knowing where exactly we were or what direction we needed to go. This, coupled with the fact that we could not communicate, left us feeling as though we had no control. Powerlessness and a loss of control are threatening forces that eliminate any sense of safety.

The result of these merging factors is alienation. Alienated people contract inward, focusing only on their own fear and insecurity. They may be engaged, but only in their own survival. An organization that finds itself filled with alienated people can expect a host of problems, from high turnover to low productivity and engagement.

So, If you want to destroy engagement, micromanage the hell out of people.  

Most people don’t seek to control others and make everyone miserable through micromanagement. They intend to do good work and may genuinely care about their people. If you ask most micromanagers if micromanagement is good, they’ll say no. Still, it is their primary management tool, because organizations have a nasty habit of setting bad examples by creating environments that lack trust by punishing any activities that do not conform to the norm.  

Managers cope with these pressures by seeking absolute control of systems, processes, and people in order to avoid any mistakes that could blow back on them. The irony is that by striving to make sure everything is perfect, they make it worse. Not only is it terrible for team engagement, but it’s also terrible for the micromanager as well. 

I once coached a manager who was considering taking a demotion. When I asked him why he said he was sinking. He was working eighty hours a week just to keep his head above water. Not only did he feel like he was failing as a manager, but his health and family were beginning to suffer as well. After asking a few questions, the problem was clear.

He was a micromanager and he was doing this to himself. The clients and company were piling on the pressure and he responded to the fear for his own survival by assuming control of everything he could. That’s the thing about human beings. They desperately seek control. People who feel powerless in one area of their life will search out and assume control wherever they can. For managers feeling powerless, this usually means assuming control over subordinate activities.   

Not only did he not delegate, but he was actually performing job functions that were the responsibility of his team. He had twenty people coming to him for every decision and with every question. He trained them to do so by not empowering them to think or do for themselves. This led to more mistakes and inefficiencies, which increased his controlling grip, paranoia, and fear of failure. And so, the cycle continued.  

As for the manager, he was not a power-hungry control freak. Quite the opposite, actually. But, he responded to this perceived threat the only way he knew how. In the process, he alienated his team from their ability to do their jobs effectively by removing any sort of control, autonomy, and ownership, which inevitably leads to less self-accountability. The harder he worked, the worse things got.

See the pattern? Alienated managers create alienated teams. How’s that for organizational alignment?

As for me and my wife, we made sure to keep an eye and ear on the tour guide at all times for the remainder of the excursion. We had a great time because security, confidence, and safety in the environment do a lot for the psyche.     

What examples of empowered engagement and disengaged alienation have you seen or experienced?

Matt Nelson

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