The VW Scandal as a Cautionary Tale – Cultivating Fear Always Ends Badly

culture of fear

For those who might have been taking a long vacation from reality, Volkswagen recently became embroiled in a scandal regarding some of its cars with diesel engines. It seems that when these cars where tested for emissions, a “defeat device” (a software program), would detect that the cars were being tested and change the performance accordingly. This led to claims that their diesel cars were better for the environment than their competitors. In all there appears that over 500,000 of these “clean diesel” cars are currently on the road, mostly in the United States.

vw emissions testShortly after this scandal broke, the finger pointing began. Under pressure from a United States House of Representatives Oversight and Investigations panel, Michael Horn, Volkswagen’s United States Head, stated, “This was a couple of software engineers who put this in for whatever reason.” While I find it very disingenuous and slimy to through your software developers “under the bus”, albeit one with flowers and the smell of Patchouli oil, the question that remains, assuming Horn was not involved, is why would these “rogue” developers decide to create something like a “defeat device” in the first place?

When I first heard of the “rogue” developer explanation, I realized there are two possible reasons – the developers do not care about their work or the developers acted out of fear for their jobs (or both). In either case the root cause is that there is a culture that discourages employee disengagement and fear. This means that while Mr. Horn might be accurate that it was “rogue” developers who are responsible for the act of creating the malicious software, the responsibility for corporate culture rests squarely with leadership. Since Horn was the top leader then he bears the brunt of the responsibility for the culture that would allow/coerce developers to make such a disastrous decision, one that could cost VW billions.

vw diesel engineThat is not to say that the developers who made the changes should be held blameless, but it is not unusual for corporate culture to treat developers more like minions than the professionals that they are, shielding them from making decisions we would expect respected professionals to make. Fear for their very jobs, while puzzling in an environment where good developers can pick and choose, was most likely the final calculation that allowed the developers to write this malicious code. And not only developers, but where was the Quality Assurance during this process? Again, it is poor culture that allows such misdeeds to flourish.

My educated guess received some support in a recent column in Road and Track by Bob Lutz, a former Genera Motors executive. Lutz placed the blame for the recent scandal directly on the shoulders of ex-Chairman Ferdinand Piech. Lutz stated that Piech’s tenure was distinguished by a style of leadership which was “a reign of terror and a culture where performance was driven by fear and intimidation.” Lutz described one exchange with Piech regarding the body fits of the new VW Golf where Piech bragged about his “recipe” for better body fits.

“I called all the body engineers, stamping people, manufacturing, and executives into my conference room. And I said, ‘I am tired of all these lousy body fits. You have six weeks to achieve world-class body fits. I have all your names. If we do not have good body fits in six weeks, I will replace all of you. Thank you for your time today.”

While this leadership style might work from time to time, it is motivational junk food. It creates a toxic culture where the long-term effects will one day negatively manifest themselves, in this case, with “defeat devices.”

Studies have shown that only about 30% of US workers are engaged in their work. That fact, along with dozens of years of experience, have led me to believe a huge percentage of companies use fear as their primary means of motivation. My advice to leaders is to pay attention to the VW scandal and heed its warning. You will most certainly reap what you sow, karma will catch up with you and cultivating fear will always end badly.

Fear, Slack and Agile Transformation

leadership headstone

This past week I got the chance to finally check out the Silicon Valley Agile Trends and Leadership meetup at Yahoo in Sunnyvale. I really enjoyed the presentation that was given by Dan Kimble on The Leadership Crisis of the Digital Age.

Dan did a great job of framing the problems endemic in today’s high tech world – working too many hours, allowing too many interruptions, superfluous meetings, incessant checking of emails, the inability to unplug, etc. It was interesting to see that nearly everyone in the audience not only recognized the behavior, but agreed that it was irrational.

Fear ImageAfter presenting the group with the problem, Dan allowed discussion as to the possible root causes for such irrational behavior. There were a number of comments that seemed to dance around the true cause like one gentleman who offered that the problem was “culture”. Since this was my maiden voyage, my goal was to keep a low profile, but to those who know me, this is not always possible when the topic is Agile or software development (though on most other subjects I am likely to remain silent). I was compelled to speak up. The real root cause – FEAR.

Most interesting to me was that once that comment was made, it seemed to me that light bulbs starting going off. Fear. Ah yes. I check my emails at all hours so that my boss and co-workers can see how hard I work, how committed I am to the cause. I stay late so that people can see me and will know that I am not replaceable. If I have anything that looks like slack time, I may get sent back home (in some cases home can be very far away). We all seemed to know it, but it was almost like, even in that room of agile aficionados, we were afraid to give it a name.

Fear is a very good motivator. Like sugar it is great for short-term gain, but one cannot live on junk food alone. The problem is that our so-called leaders these days rely almost exclusively on this motivational junk food. The facts are that working over 40 hours is not productive, that not having down time leads to stress and burn out, that a culture of fear leads to employee disengagement and turnover, but facts be damned with our new breed of leaders.

The fear is so bad that all slack has been driven out of day. We do not have the time to think. We do not have the time to plan. We do not have the time to learn. We do not have the time to create long-term strategy. We do not take the time to train. We do not have time to form personal bonds with our co-workers. We do not have the time to build healthy relationships with our clients, let alone our own families. We do not have time to change. We do not have time to transform.

SlackIt is the lack of slack that is the single biggest factor that will derail your agile transformation (or any other significant workplace initiative), even though everyone will benefit from a proper adoption of agile. We are so busy implementing on the newest bright shiny object that we cannot take the time necessary to allow for a proper agile implementation.

So, if there are any “leaders” out there looking to make significant changes in your organization, like an agile transformation, please pay attention. If you want change, you must first remove fear. In its place, install some slack. Give back some time. Allow people to learn. Allow people to reflect. Allow people to change. Allow people to fail gracefully. You want to lead? Give them a reason to follow, something that aligns with their own intrinsic motivation. Stop using motivational junk food. Stop using fear.