Regarding a Culture of Fear

A colleague from the UK asks, how do you deal with a culture of fear?

If an organization has a “culture of fear” it’s because of the leadership. They are using the blunt instrument of fear because they lack the ability to lead with better tools (inspiration, shared vision).

To see if a firm has a culture of fear, ask the front line workers these questions:

  1. Is management open to new ideas?
  2. Is discipline applied to all fairly?
  3. Do you receive supportive feedback about the quality of your work?

These questions will help because fear-based cultures are not open to new ideas, are perceived as arbitrary and unfair, and don’t include supportive feedback.

Next, if you do have a fear-based culture in the firm (or in some part of it), get some leverage on the person in charge who is screwing up. That means finding his boss. For a CEO, it’s the board of directors. Talk with them briefly about the conversation you’re going to have with the fear-based boss – outline your concerns and how you believe a change will boost performance. (It will.)

Next you have to intervene with the fear-based boss. This is hard. Most will retreat into denial, justification, or both. To avoid that you have to do a lot of prep work – there’s no space here to detail it – it’s hard but it can be done.

Your intervention needs to convey that change must occur, that fear is less productive and the change will be profitable, and that you can and will help the fear-based boss find new, better tools of motivation.

Targets or Goals:

  1. Create a work environment where people are not afraid for their jobs – i.e. people don’t get fired arbitrarily.
  2. Workers must not fear feedback – praise extroverts in public and offer corrections in private.
  3. Corrections must be forward-looking. Don’t dwell on why a worker did the wrong thing – clarify what the right thing is and get agreement that in future, that’s what the worker will do.


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