Does Your Attitude Need a Surgeon General’s Warning?

by Jennifer Miller on July 21, 2009

in Guest Blogger, Leadership, Personal Effectiveness

How to prepare for the coming recovery by turning caution into action

Dave Schrader, Leading Work

Dave Schrader, Leading Work

By Guest Blogger Dave Schrader


As the recession wears on, I’ve begun seeing a pattern in some clients that may cost them dearly in the near future: fear and caution are silently working their way deep into the organization’s psyche.  And those feelings are quietly draining key people of needed energy, commitment, and the ability to prepare for the eventual recovery.

Sure, it can be blamed on the economy, but that’s too easy, and leaves everyone feeling helpless to do anything about it.  My work with people at all levels tells me there’s another cause: leader and manager thinking based in insecurity.  It goes like this:


“We just need to hunker down, cut costs everywhere we can, and wait out the storm.”
“If we can simply keep our heads above water, we’ll live through this.”
“Above all, don’t screw up or make mistakes right now.  Stick to what we know.”

It’s ironic and irrational
Just at the very time when creativity and courage are needed to bring out the best in everyone, caution and anxiety are driving it underground.  What is needed are new ideas for increasing revenue and market share, a higher level of engagement and ownership, and more cross-functional collaboration.  Instead, people are ducking under their desks, holding on to the status quo.

The message that’s getting through from leadership, whether intended or not, is, “We’re scared and not sure what to do.  But don’t worry, we (meaning “us in the executive suite”) will figure it out.  Just keep your head down, sharpen your budget scissors, and don’t get in the way.  We’ll let you know when it’s safe to go back outside.” Can you hear the message for non-C-Suite managers and their teams?

It’s hugely seductive for leaders to operate from these assumptions because it’s possible that the strategy just might work.  They might make it through the tough times and live to fight another day.  But it’s even more likely that whatever comes through the storm won’t be in a very competitive position. Morale, engagement, and commitment will be shot and the organization will be flat-footed.  And everyone will have learned that, “When the going gets tough, we wait to see what will happen.”

Your competitive advantage: turning caution into action

Right now, those companies that are working to redirect the energy behind the caution and fear are going to be best positioned to profit from the coming recovery.

We know from physics that energy never disappears; it just changes forms.  There’s tremendous potential energy locked up in people’s nervous worries about the future. At this moment, your leadership work has to be to help shift everyone’s thinking from reactive to proactive, from caution into actions that lead to long-term strategic success. 

Here’s how you do it:

First, take an honest look at your leadership team and the messages your behavior may be sending.  Collect data on your (individual and collective) impact and face it without flinching.

Next, teach all your managers how to positively influence the thinking and conversations around the organization, because that’s where the leverage is.  As Peter Block said: if we change the conversations, we change the organization.

Finally, begin having different kinds of meetings.  Move away from the meetings in which an audience watches senior executives behind podiums giving updates and focusing attention on all the problems we’re worrying about.  Rather, signal that everyone’s input and commitment are needed by designing meetings that engage all participants in determining how to proactively prepare for the coming recovery.

The hopeful news is that by shifting perspectives and investing in building capacity for the recovery, people will regain a sense of reality-based optimism.  And they will begin to bring what they have to the table, instead of hiding it under their desk.


Dave Schrader is the founder of LeadingWork, a consultancy that helps companies find and release the untapped potential of their workforce.  Through his training, consulting and coaching, Dave works with mid- to executive-level managers to help them lead in ways to increase engagement and create changes in performance. Dave holds a Ph.D. in Organizational Behavior and is a certified practitioner with The Leadership Circle  360 assessment tools. Contact Dave at

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Cynthia Davies July 29, 2009 at 8:52 am

You are spot on with your article.
This is the time for courageous individuals to “Lead Up” and offer innovative ideas in open and honest conversations AND have those in the C-suite encourage and welcome them.

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