Do You Have a Fear-Based Work Culture? Here’s How to Fix It!

If fear-based tactics are being used as a driver in your workplace, it could have a negative effect on your time, money, relationships, and psychological well-being.

Do you know where your organization's culture currently stands?

A Close Look at the Problem

Fear can manifest in the workplace in many ways, but it typically occurs with a trickle-down effect, where ineffective leaders employ fear-based tactics to control the behavior of employees.

Leaders who try to hold people accountable with fear may not realize they're doing it. Or, if they're doing it intentionally, they may try to argue that fear gets things done. But using fear as a driver provides only short-term motivation and short-term resentful compliance.

When employees become resentful toward leadership, stress levels and employee turnover rise, while workplace satisfaction, happiness, and psychological well-being plummet. The effects of fear-based tactics can negatively impact employee engagement, the customer experience, and even brand reputation—when employees are stressed and fearful, this dissatisfaction can potentially seep into conversations with clients, and their frustrations with their organization's culture may be voiced word of mouth or via internet, serving as a red flag to potential candidates.

In his best-selling book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, Daniel Pink identifies three various levels of motivation:

Motivation 1.0 – To survive.

Motivation 2.0 – To seek reward and avoid punishment.

Motivation 3.0 – To seek autonomy, mastery, and purpose.

Many organizations find themselves stuck in a fear-based 2.0 culture where leaders and employees are compelled to avoid something, whether it's failure, termination, or some other unwanted consequence. It consists of punishing the bad and rewarding the good.

In order to move into Motivation 3.0—autonomy, mastery, and purpose—leaders have to provide trust, growth opportunities, and meaning in order to achieve it. In motivation 3.0, our work transcends fear and instead becomes intrinsic and purpose-driven.

When fear is present in an organization, it can lead to what Pink has termed "The Seven Deadly Flaws":

1. It can extinguish intrinsic motivation.

2. It can diminish performance.

3. It can crush creativity.

4. It can crowd out good behavior.

5. It can encourage cheating, shortcuts, and unethical behavior.

6. It can become addictive.

7. It can foster short-term thinking.

The opposite of a fear-based culture is a culture where everyone within the organization feels psychologically safe. Coined by Harvard Business professor Amy Edmonson, the term psychological safety is "a belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes." When there's no fear of punishment, it leads to more innovation, increased productivity, and an authentic environment of candor.

It may be hard to categorize your culture as either fear-based or psychologically safe. Imagine these two terms on a spectrum, and your organization will fall somewhere on this spectrum. Even if you would place your organization closer to the psychologically safe end of the spectrum, any lingering fear that does exist, even in small amounts, can create big problems.

Identifying a Fear-Based Culture

Some fear-based tactics are obvious, such as delivering a punishment for poor performance. Others, such as a lack of communication, can be harder to identify when you aren't even aware that there's an unaddressed problem.

Below are some common characteristics of fear-based cultures. Have you witnessed any of the following behaviors in your organization?

1. There are things you don't talk about, can't talk about, or don't feel comfortable talking about. At Fierce, we call them Mokitas. Mokita is a Papua New Guinean term for something that everyone knows but no one talks about. The fewer mokitas, the healthier the tribe. That thing that we know and feel compelled to not talk about because the consequences may not be "pleasant." In a psychologically-safe culture, no problem is off-limits, and employees feel comfortable discussing issues with leadership. Confrontation takes place when needed, and feedback is given on the fly.

2. Employee mistakes are met with some sort of punishment or unwanted consequence. Rather than supporting employees in their development, ineffective leaders will try to improve performance with fear-based tactics including threats, various forms of intimidation, passive aggressive behavior such as the silent treatment, secrecy, or manipulation. In a psychologically safe environment, failures are met with support and development opportunities. Leaders are transparent and use coaching conversations to help employees identify their own personal values and desires that will aid their development.

3. Leaders are micromanaging. A leader who micromanages is a fearful leader. They're rarely satisfied with deliverables and nitpick tiny details that can slow project timelines and dishearten employees. They may doubt the ability of employees to handle tasks and fear delegating new tasks, which puts a damper on development opportunities. Effective leaders who want to create a psychologically-safe environment will grant trust and autonomy to employees, acting as a supportive guide for personal and professional development.

4. Siloed and/or One-way Communication. Healthy cultures have top-down, bottom-up, and cross-department communication. If conversations are only happening in one direction or aren't happening at all, it hinders transparency and openness, which makes it harder to establish a sense of trust in leadership within an organization. Leaders and employees need to be on the same page when it comes to feedback—it's a two-way conversation. Leaders need to give feedback to employees, and employees need to feel safe giving feedback to leaders.

While the full list of fear-based behaviors is more extensive than what we've listed here, these are some of the primary culprits. If you've experienced any of these behaviors, it's time to make a change in your organization.

The Conversation is the Relationship

In 2012, Google launched an initiative called "Project Aristotle" to study the lives of their employees and determine what factors mattered most for creating a successful team. Long story short, Google's data concluded that psychological safety, more than anything else, was critical to making a team work:

"What Project Aristotle has taught people within Google is that no one wants to put on a 'work face' when they get to the office. No one wants to leave part of their personality and inner life at home. But to be fully present at work, to feel 'psychologically safe,' we must know that we can be free enough, sometimes, to share the things that scare us without fear of recriminations. We must be able to talk about what is messy or sad, to have hard conversations with colleagues who are driving us crazy."

The study identified that real connections are what create a sense of psychological safety, with communication and empathy being the main building blocks of these connections.

When conversation is skillful, empathic, and nurturing to the relationship, it builds the cohesion and connections that fuel a healthy culture. As we say at Fierce, C=R=C. The conversation is the relationship is the culture. The better your conversations, the better your relationships and culture will be.

Establishing a Psychologically-Safe Workplace

A DecisionWise benchmark study of over 100,000 employees found that 34% of employees in the U.S. do not speak up out of fear of retribution. If you want to see a culture shift, "speaking up" needs to be actively encouraged, and when employees do speak up, their perspectives need to be met with respect and consideration. They need to know that you want to know their thoughts.

Psychological safety is shaped by skillful conversations and a growth-oriented, supportive, and empathic approach to employee performance. Here are the top three most important conversations to start having now:

1. Delegate – Leaders need to muster up the courage and willingness to delegate. Losing control and ownership of certain tasks can be uncomfortable at first, but granting employees trust, confidence, and growth opportunities engages and enlivens teams. Successful delegation also allows leaders to free up time, space, and energy to place their focus where it's needed most.

2. Coach – Have a one-on-one conversation with someone in your organization to dive deeper and address the most pressing issue. Effective coaching conversations help guide employees to healthy, desired action and allow them to chart their own course of development with self-generated insight. When there is no advice-giving on behalf of the coach, it provides a self-actualization opportunity for the coachee.

3. Team – Encourage team members to share ideas openly without filtering or trying to assess whether the ideas have merit. The best brainstorming is unfiltered, and if you're interested in generating the best ideas, employees need to feel safe enough to express themselves freely.

If you're an individual contributor and you feel leadership either doesn't support "speaking up" or they haven't communicated their support, don't wait for them to do so. We highly encourage you to bring up the issue to your supervisor. And we know how hard this can be—especially if you fear there might be a consequence to speaking up. However, if you want to empower yourself and those you work with and create positive change, it will require you to initiate what could be a somewhat risky conversation. One conversation can make all the difference.

Read more in our latest eBook here about all five of the most critical conversations you need to be having to transform your culture and create lasting change. 

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