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The Culture of Fear

We all know the importance of workplace culture (at least I hope we do!) We know that having an effective (read – positive/supportive) workplace culture is the foundation for all your candidate attraction, employment branding and employee engagement activities and desired business outcomes. The challenge being, this is the single biggest area where so many companies fall on their faces. The culture that they profess to have is not the culture that they actually have. Worse yet, I have seen far too many examples of senior leadership teams so out of touch with their organizations that they believe they actually have one type of culture (positive and supportive) and the reality is a far different story!

FearThe worst kind of any type of organizational cultures is a culture of fear. Now, nobody is going to actually sit down and label your company culture as being as such; however, what is important is that at a minimum you realize when such a culture exists in your organization and then be able to respond to and fix the problem, because it is just that – a major problem.

The problem often being is that a culture of fear is like a malaise – it starts to set in over time and much like the boiled frog analogy, the culture has taken hold of and paralyzed your organization without anyone realizing it. You often see this in companies that have issues attracting and retaining staff, or are suffering with productivity issues or a lack of engagement from their staff. You also usually hear comments from the leadership team like, “We are surprised by this, it (turnover, morale, etc.) wasn’t like this 4-5 years ago!” “I have no idea where this is coming from?” So I ask you, do any of these phrases sound familiar? If they do, you are probably working, or have worked, in a fear based culture.

The key thing is to first realize when you are immersed in this type of culture so that you can eventually do something about it. In order to help you with some self-actualization, here are some of the signs you are working in a fear based culture:

1. No decisions are made without top level approval – in essence, pretty much everything goes to the top. Purchases of advertising space, office supplies, building repairs, etc. all go the highest level(s) in your organization. This is a classic command and control management approach. No one has any real decision-making capability because they aren’t empowered or allowed to say “yes.”

2. Emails are used to “confirm” everything – this is the classic CYA approach. No one does anything without getting something in writing. This is a classic sign of a fear based culture. Everyone wants “protection” in case something goes wrong, that way, someone else can be blamed. This is because:

3. Mistakes are not tolerated – I am not saying that a senior leader literally says this; however, it is always demonstrated in their actions. When things don’t work out the way the management team wants them to, there is always blame assigned. This is different from accountability and using opportunities to learn/coach and improve – this is about pointing the finger and assigning fault for mistakes so that the problem is never with the managers or senior leadership, it is always with the front line staff.

4. Building of alliances – companies that have fear based cultures experience a lot of alliance building. This can take the form of alliances being built on project teams or within departments. Individuals line up support behind the scenes for their initiatives, concerns, etc. so they lobby for potential change. They do this because of a fear of not being supported by leadership, or fear of reprisal from senior management or their co-workers if they are to bring their concerns out in the open. Therefore, they feel the best way to not be out on an island by themselves is to build their support team in advance.

5. Towing the company line (fear of speaking out) – this is an obvious one but fear based cultures do not allow/support employees in speaking out. If something is seen as not being right, or is potentially flawed, employees won’t speak out against it for fear of being chastised, being labelled as “high maintenance,” being publically embarrassed through some draconian management technique or fear of being ostracized from being part of key projects – thus limiting their career growth. The end result – tow the company line – whether that is in the best interest of the company or not.

6. Meetings after the meeting – this is a classic sign of a workplace culture gripped in fear. Regular meetings are held to discuss business strategy, project updates, etc. and after this meeting other meetings take place. You know the ones – where multiple groups of 3-4 people have their own discussion of what really happened, what has to actually happen, how they will work around some inept team member or manager or they simply discuss what the real issues are (the ones no one wanted to hear about in the 1st meeting!) This occurs, typically, because signs #4 and #5 above exist in your organization. These meetings serve to build consensus, drum up support or build alliances towards things that the group have deemed not workable. At the end of the day, everyone is simply afraid to speak the truth and they are simply trying to survive in their “tribes.”

7. Us vs. them (subcultures) – in fear based cultures, there is a lot of feelings of “us vs. them.” This is typically seen in departments where it is marketing vs. finance or operations vs. client services. (I didn’t say HR vs. anyone because everyone loves HR – right!?) Departments are not being led towards achieving organizational goals. They focus more on department level “wins” which means they often win at the expense of other departments. This allows their departments to look good so that they won’t be under the organizational microscope, because in fear based cultures, senior management “calls out” departments for their shortcomings. So, better this happens to the other guys instead of you…right!?

I am sure there are many other signs; however, these are some of the big ones that you see in organizations that are driven by fear. It is this very fear that is counter-productive to good business being done. It obviously negatively impacts your ability to attract and retain the right talent and it most definitely negatively impacts your overall employee productivity and engagement levels.

What about you? What other signs do you see that would identify a fear based culture? As always, I welcome your comments and feedback.


Image courtesy of pakorn/FreeDigitalPhotos.net


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