One of my colleagues recently asserted, “the people of that business unit do not experience being protected by the leadership team.” Yes, that’s it! – I thought.

I was struggling to distinguish how a recent divestiture announcement was impacting the performance of the business unit. My colleague, Greg, was referring to the qualitative comments made in an employee survey. This business unit of a large international company had enjoyed many years of exceptional results and now was struggling. Although no one said, “we don’t feel protected,” the comments communicated a background of vulnerability.

FUD Impacts Our Performance

During my Army days, I was always on guard for fear, uncertainty & doubt (“FUD”). For the morale of a soldier or troop, FUD is like a deadly virus—invisible until it’s too late. FUD is also virulent and spreads quickly. And FUD was definitely present within this business unit and performance was hemorrhaging.

Of course, after such an announcement, staff would experience being vulnerable; it’s obvious and understandable. When I am feeling vulnerable, exposed or threatened I do not perform my best; do you? Why? Well, Simon Sinek does a great job of explaining the neurochemical cascade that generates self-preserving behaviors when we are threatened. Worse, this neurochemical cascade inhibits our natural drive to collaborate. And thus, performance retreats like a falling tide.

So what? What can we do as leaders? Greg provided the answer. We need to ensure our people feel protected by us—like you have their back.

The Experience of Being Protected – Cross The Street in London

If you have ever been to London, you will experience the City planners having your back. When you cross the road your natural inclination is to look left (if you are from a place where you drive on the right side of the road). But, painted on the crossing, in bold yellow letters is, “Look Right!” I know I have had the experience of being protected by this reminder, which must have cost the city millions.

Dealing with FUD Starts by Knowing Your People & Promoting Their Welfare

I’ll never forget in basic officer training Warrant Officer Frank Hutchins shouting, “the first principle of military leadership is: know your men and promote their welfare…you do that and they can focus on the mission!” When I was doing basic officer training, women were not permitted in the combat arms, so please forgive the use of men.

Today I say, know your people and promote their welfare. This principle creates a world of opportunity for you to have your people experience you having their back. A clumsy way to say it, perhaps, but it is very nuanced and specific.

For example, I kept a book with the personal details of all my soldiers. Things like, anniversary dates were especially useful to know. During the morning parade (start of shift meeting) I would say, “Happy Anniversary Corporal Jones”. If Jones had an “oh, crap” look on his face, I would then excuse him for an hour to go get flowers or another appropriate gift. If you were Jones, and I was authentic about this interaction (i.e. really cared about you having a happy anniversary) would you experience me having your back?

Looking after people and promoting their welfare also took the form of not accepting sub-standard performance. It also looked like backing-up the decisions my troops made even if I looked bad. It looked like going the extra mile to get fresh food when none existed. It also had me be more careful in my technical planning to avoid unnecessary work or risk.

Knowing people and promoting their welfare can span being thoughtful and considerate, being tough with standards or taking one on the chin or eating last. Whatever idea or practice you come up with, as long as Jones gets that you know him, what he is committed to, and that you won’t allow him to be anything but his best he will experience you protecting him. With you having his back he can focus on the mission.

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