The Fear Of Success anti-pattern
Here’s a thought experiment for you – let’s imagine you’re in a leadership position in your organization. You’ve taken on a large project and after months of development, the product delivery is finally within reach. Everybody is excited, the customers and stakeholders can’t wait to get started, and the dev team is working hard dotting the I’s and making sure everything is perfect.
Then something weird happens. The lead developer (LD) requests a meeting. This is your star developer, always confident, always optimistic and on top of his or her game. But this meeting is different – the LD is self-deprecating, in doubt about their skills and abilities, and deeply worried about the quality of the product. The LD is convinced the customer will hate the product, and requests to postpone the delivery so that the team can perform a due diligence on the architecture and code base.
This will come as a shock. Until now the project had been happily moving along, like a train running smoothly on its tracks, and now it feels like you’ve hit a tree and everything has ground to a halt. You’re also shocked by the behavior of your LD. This is the tech-wizard who always had your back, a competent and qualified team leader, who has now suddenly flip-flopped into deep worry.
You’re going to have to tell the CEO that the launch party has to be postponed (good luck with that). And your LD is now a nervous wreck. And you might have a defective product on your hands.
How did this happen?
Congratulations, you’ve just encountered Fear Of Success – a very common leadership anti-pattern.
The nice thing about this anti-pattern is that it is very easy to spot. It will only happen at the very end of a project, right when you’re about to make a major delivery. And it will make anyone in charge of tech deeply worried about the quality of your product, seemingly overnight.
The bad thing about this anti-pattern is that it indicates that there is something wrong with your organization, and you’re going to have to fix it. This will not be easy.
So what causes Fear Of Success to arise in an organization?
The underlying cause of Fear Of Success
Fear Of Success is caused by a Termination Issue.
This is a term from psychotherapy, it describes irrational behaviors that arise in a group when a termination is imminent. In this case, the termination is the ending of the project after a successful delivery. Some team members will resist the termination, and act irrationally to sabotage their own success in an attempt to keep the group together.
It may seem strange that a team could sabotage its own success in an effort to stay together, but the bonds of belonging and friendship are very strong, especially in a tight-knit team. Some people will do anything to hold on to that feeling of belonging and delay the imminent breakup of newfound relationships. And they won’t be consciously aware of their self-sabotaging behavior.
Your organization probably also does not have a clear Definition Of Success.
When will the delivery be successful? Is it when the dev team releases the 1.0 version of the product? Or maybe when the product is in the hands of the customer? Or when the customer is happy? If there is no clear definition of success, then the dev team can never know if or when their product is going to be successful. And due to the termination issue, they will worry about the repercussions of an unsuccessful launch.
What if there is a definition of success? You’re still going to have a problem if this definition includes factors that the team cannot control, like customer happiness.
Fear of unhappy customers is very common and often happens in teams that have not been in regular contact with the customer. The delivery will be the first occasion where the customer gets to see what the team has produced.
Does your organization place account managers between the team and the customer? Do you carefully control all incoming and outgoing communication? This is a fertile ground for the Fear Of Success anti-pattern.
Finally, be aware of Toxic Communication in your organization.
Do you often see executives criticizing people, hold them in contempt, act dismissively, or engage in stonewalling behavior? These communication styles, first identified by John Gottman, are so toxic that we call them the Four Horsemen. They poison the atmosphere and produce a culture of fear and blame.
I mentioned earlier that the team has no trouble worrying about the repercussions of an unsuccessful launch. A culture of fear and blame makes things so much worse. The team will no longer trust their own abilities, cast the entire product architecture in doubt, and live in fear of the blame they imagine they’ll face after an unsuccessful launch.
So what can we do?
How to fix Fear Of Success
The first thing you need to realize is that you cannot do much about the termination issue. You can create a company culture where people can freely move between teams and work on any project they like, but there will always be some upheaval when a project team disbands.
But what you can do is make sure that the termination issue behaviors have nowhere to go.
Step one is to create a very clear definition of success.
When will the product launch be considered successful? Share this definition with the team and make sure everybody is on board. When the team hits their goal, bring out the champagne and throw a party. Make sure everybody in the organization realizes that the launch was a success.
If the definition of success includes factors like customer happiness, then make sure the team has all the tools they need to make this happen.
At the very least, there should be a clear and open communication channel between the team and the customer. The lead developer should have the customer on speed-dial. Even better, embed the customer within the development team. Have him or her sit in on team meetings and offer context on functionality. A team in daily contact with the customer is not going to be worried when it’s almost time to deliver a product to that customer.
And finally, monitor how people communicate within the organization.
Ranting, criticizing, and being contemptuous are all signs of weakness, an indicator that someone is using others in an attempt to regulate their own emotions. It’s not healthy, it creates a toxic and blame-based work environment, and you should have a zero-tolerance policy for this kind of behavior.
A culture free of blame is a very interesting work environment. In the absence of blame, everybody is free to try out experiments, move outside of their comfort zone, and be secure in the knowledge that mistakes will be treated as learning opportunities. Creativity and productivity will thrive.
And the fear of success will have nowhere to go.
Have you ever seen the Fear Of Success anti-pattern in your organization? What did you do?
Would you like to know more? I’ve created a series of blog posts that look at each anti-pattern in detail. Each post is loosely inspired by actual events that happened during my 20-year IT career.
Take a look:
Also published on Medium.