Skip to main content

Breaking the Fear Barrier

By Tom Rieger

(Gallup Press, 151 pages, $27.50)

Story continues below advertisement

When the supply department of a U.S. financial services company was under great pressure in the depths of the recent recession to control costs, it declared a three-month moratorium on new orders. But employees still needed basic materials such as printer ink, paper and pens, and weren't all that eager to pay for those supplies out of their own wallets.

So branch managers began calling colleagues elsewhere in the United States, and they would barter, with one manager sending the other, say, paper, in return for paper clips. The company was now paying a needless, if somewhat hidden, sum for shipping all these materials back and forth across the country to save an outlay at local supply stores.

Tom Rieger, a senior practice expert, cites this story about the unnamed company in his book Breaking the Fear Barrier as an example of the silly, Byzantine rules that can sprout over time in organizations. This one was short-term, but most organizations have a host of entrenched barriers that prevent staff from doing their work effectively and even customers from easily buying the products or services.

He and his colleagues at Gallup stumbled across the importance of these barriers when working with some stalled companies that couldn't stop their slow downward slide. "In every case, the problem was a barrier: Something put in place internally that was intended to help one group but harmed another. When we examined the data, we found that one root cause for those barriers far overshadowed all others. It existed in every organization that we studied and was generally the driving force behind the most damaging and most severe barriers. It was the fear of loss," he writes.

People would go to great lengths to protect their pay, bonus, promotion, budget, head counts, big office or right to make certain decisions. They felt entitled to existing practices, and didn't care if the barrier they erected hurt the larger organization. "Successfully managing this basic balancing act, the survival instinct of the individual versus the operational needs of the greater good, is a leadership imperative that is too often overlooked," he says.

Those barriers arise as businesses grow, adding departments and divisions, with individual managers given responsibility for their specific unit's success. Those managers are usually rewarded by the success of their units. Those units, no matter how loud the proclamations about the need for collaboration, will find themselves inevitably competing for resources and glory. In time, he says, three levels of bureaucracy will grow, creating the barriers that hamper people from operating effectively:


Story continues below advertisement

People view the world not through the eyes of the customer but through the needs of their unit. A focus on process over outcomes becomes the norm. People start thinking in terms of "my department," rather than "our company." To counter this, he urges you to conduct a rules audit, investigating rules that sometimes get in the way but are not mandated by law. Identify the need the rule is supposed to fulfill, and the validity of that need. Determine how effective the rule is in meeting its intended need, and what the unintended consequences are. Then make adjustments and communicate the changes.


While parochialism is about protection from the outside, territorialism is about controlling what is inside – the manager's turf, no matter what the impact on front-line staff of other departments. A low-grade siege mentality can develop, as managers try to control resources, projects and people simply to maintain control. Overcoming territorialism involves addressing what the people in the silo are empowered to do and how they are held accountable. Start with an employee survey in which staff indicate how empowered they feel, and then develop corrective action.

Empire building

Fear reaches its apex when individual departments start building empires, often to defend against the parochialism and territorialism of others. The department attempts to expand its power, encroaching on others. Whereas parochial managers build up walls rather than try to take control of other departments, and territorialism is about keeping things as they are, empire building involves changing the balance of power. To deal with empire building, you must overcome territorialism.

The book doesn't carry many startling insights, but it does highlight how bureaucracies grow within organizations and the relationship to fear, and it presents some broad approaches to address the problem.

Story continues below advertisement

Special to The Globe and Mail

Report an error
About the Author
Management columnist

Harvey Schachter is a Kingston, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online column, Power Points. More

Comments are closed

We have closed comments on this story for legal reasons. For more information on our commenting policies and how our community-based moderation works, please read our Community Guidelines and our Terms and Conditions.

Combined Shape Created with Sketch.

Combined Shape Created with Sketch.

Thank you!

You are now subscribed to the newsletter at

You can unsubscribe from this newsletter or Globe promotions at any time by clicking the link at the bottom of the newsletter, or by emailing us at