Fear, Quicksand and Company Culture

This is a guest post by Paul Hebert, who blogs at Incentive Intelligence.

The market has been a seesaw lately. Wild swings up, wild swings down. No one needs to tell you that though. As an employee you’ve watched your 401K get queasy with the ups and downs and as a Manager, you’ve worried one day about laying off your staff and the next about your own job. No one has to tell anyone there is fear out there.


Fear is wonderful thing – especially when fighting for our lives. Without fear we’d never have run from predators on the Serengeti and evolved to run billion dollar businesses. 300,000 years ago, fear kept us from becoming extinct and today fear keeps us from letting things like the current market situation put us out of business. Fear propels us to take actions – sometimes actions we wouldn’t normally take – but actions that could save our lives or our businesses. But fear has a habit of growing and feeding on itself. Fear can cause you to continue to make decisions and take action long after the need for survival exists.


In the 2000 movie “The Replacements” with Keanu Reeves, “replacement” players come together to play the last five games of the season after a professional football players’ strike. During a team meeting the replacement coach played by Jack Warden asks about the new players fears. “A real man confronts his fears.” says Warden. After a few funny comments about spiders and insects, Keanu says that he’s afraid of quicksand. Quicksand he goes to explain, is the feeling that everything is going well and then one thing goes wrong, then another and then another. Pretty soon you feel as if nothing you can do will help get you out of the trouble you’re in. In other words – you’re in quicksand.

Business has the same issue today. As the markets swing wildly from one extreme to another companies and employees start to do things to remove the fear. Unfortunately, the market keeps bouncing around. You try something different in the hopes it will fix the problem. And then another thing, and then another. Pretty soon you’re in quicksand.

As the old Tarzan movies showed us, the first thing you need to do to get out of quicksand is make sure you fall into it close to a strong vine. Grab the vine and pull yourself up out of the quicksand. But to successfully extract yourself, make sure you don’t struggle too much. Take your time, slowly pull yourself up and you will find your footing.

So where is the vine your business can grab onto to pull itself out of the quicksand?

Company Culture

Too often when faced with a market like we have now, companies try anything to turn their business around and typically, more than one thing at a time. Each department, group, or division initiates programs and plans to regain some control. It’s like an explorer grabbing at anything within reach to pull themselves out of the quicksand, flailing around and sinking in deeper. Unfortunately, they’re missing the big fat vine within easy reach.

Your company’s culture is that vine. Each successful business has a company culture; the core tenants that guide the behavior of its employees. Unfortunately, most companies ignore that vine and grab at the short grass that seems to be within easy reach. Avoid this pitfall.

Take the time to calm down. Identify the three of four things that form the foundation of your company culture. It could be innovation, it could be customer service, it could be a specific process. Whatever the key pillars of your company culture are – that is where you need to focus your attention.

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Begin by reinforcing those elements of your culture through company communications. Create ways to focus behavior on those things through reward and recognition. Stamp out those that would ignore those foundational blocks. Don’t let people “try anything” in the hopes it will work. Don’t fall for the quick fix or the principle du jour. Go back to the things that got you where you are.

Simple is as Simple Does

Focusing on the core beliefs and values of your organization will help you do three things:

1. Minimize second guessing. Second guessing is wasted effort. Efforts tied to core values will never be wrong. For every idea put on the table bounce it against your company values. If it is a fit, go with it. If not, bounce it out of the room.

2. Focus behavior. Most companies have only two or three core values. By focusing on these values it eliminates the noise and elevates the signal. It is much easier to make decisions when you only have to worry about a few things. Don’t overburden yourself or your employees with extraneous effort. Focus on the few and you’ll be able to eliminate the flailing around that pulls you deeper into the quicksand.

3. Reinforces the past and establishes the future.
Using your core values as your guide during tough times reinforces those values with your employees. When employees feel that the core values they believed drove the company are used to weather a particularly bad time they know you’re serious about them. When employees see you’re serious, they respond in a like manner. You will not only see a payoff today as your business weathers the storm but it will pay dividends in the future as we inevitably go through another cycle. Your employees will remember.

Grab the Vine

It is said that adversity doesn’t create character it reveals it. Focusing on your core values and company culture reveals the character of your company. Grabbing at any solution to pump up sales and profits or cutting critical assets to keep down costs will be seen as abandoning your core business beliefs and your employees (and you consumers) will notice.

Grab the big vine right in front of you – pull yourself out slowly – trust the lifeline you’ve built over time will save you from the quicksand.

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Paul Hebert is currently Managing Director of i2i – an influence consultancy that helps companies align the behavior of their employees, channel partners and consumers with the goals and objectives of the company. Using a combination of motivation theory, behavioral economics and social psychology, i2i can have profound impact on a company’s results.

Paul is widely considered an expert on motivation and incentives and authors the highly rated blog Incentive Intelligence. Paul has had whitepapers and articles published in HRM Magazine, is a contributing author on the Fistful Of Talent blog, is a monthly columnist for Incentive Magazine, and is authoring a 6-part series on how to design and effective motivation strategy for the Australian magazine – MOTIVATION.

Relevant Links:
Incentive Intelligence Blog: http://incentive-intelligence.typepad.com/
Fistful of Talent Blog: http://www.fistfuloftalent.com/
Listing of Incentive Magazine Articles: http:/incentive-intelligence.typepad.com/incentive_intelligence/article-authored-by-incen.html
Company Website: http://www.i2i-align.com

  • One needs to ensure that they’re not letting fear cloud their minds: harness that energy and use it for creating progress. So yes, Fear is a very useful tool, but its powers can go both ways. Those who survive are those who know how to manage their fear.