How to Eliminate Fear in Your Organization
The global workforce is increasingly diverse, with a wide range of companies growing the American and international economies. From massive corporations with thousands of employees to small startups, everyone is trying to figure out how to thrive in the modern workplace.
And with those dramatic changes comes a learning curve. Managers and employees are often trying to navigate personal and professional relationships and learning on the job. In a push to perform and make the best decisions, they of course make mistakes. This can lead to a fear-based workplace and nightmare work environment for your staff.
If you feel fear seeping into your office, it’s time to catch it while you still can. Keep reading to learn about the dangers of fear in your organization and how to banish it.
Fear Affects Both Employees and Managers
When you first think about workplace fear, you likely picture an employee timidly approaching a bellicose boss. In many cases, this isn’t too far off.
Lee Biggins, founder of CV Library and Resume Library, says it’s incredibly hard for most employees to ask for help, with almost 28 percent of employees worrying about seeking advice for handling a task or workload.
Most employees don’t want to look like they’re struggling or can’t handle the workload. In a fear-based office, this fear leads to more mistakes and slower project completions as employees don’t know what to do.
However, fear goes both ways in an organization, and sometimes it’s the management team that has a hard time leading employees.
Quartz reporter Corinne Purtill shared insights about managers worrying about employee communication and outreach. In a survey of 2,000 US adults, 69 percent said “communicating in general” is the hardest part of talking with employees. Meanwhile, 67 percent of employees say they’re not engaged at work and need better communication from their managers.
While providing negative feedback is difficult and many managers struggle to overcome their own insecurities, employees need leaders who talk to them and engage in conversations about what is best for the company.
Fear Prevents Companies from Making the Best Decisions
When both managers and employees work in fear, the organization as a whole suffers. Research has found that both parties hurt the organization with their fear and trepidation.
Jim Detert, professor of Business Administration at the University of Virginia, conducted a study to see how people perceive the risk of providing feedback. Participants were divided into two groups and told they were reviewing a project and should recommend ending it due to major problems.
Only the second group was told their boss had invested a considerable amount of time in the project. The result was that this group was much less likely to speak up.
The risks of speaking up felt tangible and immediate. Meanwhile, the potential benefits seem far-off and vague. Most employees decided it was better to avoid the short-term pain instead of hoping for long-term gains.
This also applies to managers. Kristi Birkeland at Q4intelligence explains that managers aren’t willing to take risks or do anything that might backfire on them. All new ideas are immediately crushed or simply ignored. These leaders are so worried about their own survival that they can’t even think about future growth and improvement.
Some Companies Specifically Try to Lead With Fear
When you see the drawbacks of fear in the workplace, it’s hard to believe that some companies try to use it as a motivation tactic. However, fear has been a staple of leadership strategies for decades.
At one point, General Electric advocated firing the bottom 10 percent of employees, creating tight competition in the workplace for fear of getting cut.
“When companies use job security as a stick as opposed to a carrot, it backfires because [workers] lose their feeling of commitment,” William Schiemann, founder of the organizational research firm Metrus Group, tells Alina Dizik at the BBC. Even high-performing employees can change their mindsets in a fear-based environment.
Fear-based leadership can last for months, if not years, in an organization, consultant Jennifer Imerini writes. Management is often left unchecked as employees worry about providing feedback and communicating the need for change. Alternatively, upper management might reinforce fear-based strategies or turn a blind-eye because of the department’s performance.
The longer the fear-based tactics reign, the harder it gets for the company to change. Eventually, your best employees will leave.
Indeed, fear-based leadership causes higher employee attrition as your top workers realize they can find a better work environment somewhere else, Heyssell Gutierrez at the Daily Workhorse writes. It also increases overall absenteeism as your team members skip work to get away from the toxic environment. No one wants to show up just to get yelled at, micromanaged or criticized for everything they do.
“Extremes don’t lead to effective leadership,” Thuy Sindell and Milo Sindell of Skyline Group write. “Instead of focusing on being feared or loved, leaders should try to find a balance between the two.”
In practice, this means managers should listen and be empathetic to employee concerns, but still be able to take control of certain situations and command respect. Leaders that skew too far one way or the other will have a hard time moving back to the middle.
Six Ways to Eliminate Fear in Your Organization
Fear can permeate at a team level or throughout your workplace. Regardless of the size of the infection, management needs to take steps to reduce fear and create a sense of confidence and security in the company’s employees.
Identify Common Behaviors of a Fear-Based Organization
The first step in reducing fear in your company is knowing what to look for. With this information, you can diagnose the severity of the problem and create a plan for change.
“Typical behaviours in a fear-filled organisation include blame, making excuses, being cynical, and restricting the flow of information or participation in important decisions,” Sue Paterson, Ph.D., coauthor of The Fear-Free Organization, writes. “Also common are the emphasis on processes, procedures, policies and rights, discrediting each other’s competence, a general lack of willingness to take accountability, and undermining each other’s efforts.”
There’s a common thread in all of these symptoms: Employee insecurity means team members are more likely to engage in behavior that tears others down rather than forming collaborative bonds that build everyone up.
Take Immediate Steps When You See Behavior That Causes Fear
Managers can prevent fear from seeping into the organization on the worker level as well. If one employee bullies others, is disrespectful, or tries fear-based tactics to move projects forward, then management needs to step in to change their behavior.
“If an employee engages in bad behavior, address the problem immediately so it doesn’t spiral out of control,” staffing manager Tommy Moon at Ultimate Medical Academy, writes. “By taking action, you’ll show your team that you take workplace culture and corporate values seriously.”
This conversation could stem from someone in the C-suite talking to middle managers, or managers reviewing problems with their direct reports.
Solicit (and Act on) Employee Feedback
While many companies claim to have open door policies for communication, few go out of their way to solicit feedback and make meaningful changes because of it. This can sometimes leave employees feeling like their feedback is falling into a void.
“Make sure your people know that when they tell you the truth, it’s appreciated — and not a reason to condemn or punish them,” Cort Dial, founder of BULLETPROOF Future Planning, writes. “The strongest leaders — I call them All-In Leaders — listen to feedback, thank their people for it, and actively try to apply lessons learned.”
Receiving and acting on feedback takes practice. As a manager, you need to be mentally prepared to receive criticism constructively.
Executive coach Suzanne Bates shared one story of a company president reacting negatively to anonymous feedback about his leadership. The president had asked for candid opinions on his strengths and weaknesses, and took the feedback personally when one employee thought he was intimidating. That employee ended up proving his point when the president barged into the office of one of his direct reports demanding to know who wrote that opinion.
If your employees are afraid of you, then you are likely giving them concrete reasons for them to feel the way they do.
Build Rapport With Your Direct Reports
Building personal connections with your team members can give them the confidence to speak up when there’s a problem. The team at Get Lighthouse recently emphasized the importance of building rapport with employees. This doesn’t mean becoming best friends with them, but rather showing an interest in them and building strong emotional bonds.
A few questions to get started talking with your employees include:
What drives you and motivates you at work each day?
What is your favorite part of working here?
What are you passionate about outside of work?
What do you do for fun that you haven’t had time for lately?
These open-ended questions can help you understand where a person comes from and how you can motivate them in the future.
Identify Any Off-Limit Discussion Topics
Even companies with strong communication channels can suffer when fear levels are high. Justin Perun, director of client development at leadership development and training company Fierce Inc., says one of the key signs of a fearful workplace is the presence of certain topics that employees can’t talk about or don’t feel comfortable discussing.
At Fierce, they call these topics “mokitas,” the Papua New Guinean word for something “everyone knows but no one talks about.” In a healthy culture, employees should feel comfortable talking about problems or concerns with their peers or managers — and no problem should be off-limits.
Embrace Failure and Testing in Your Organization
Modern leaders have learned to give their managers and employees room to try new things and fail. “You can greatly reduce the level of fear in your company by creating a culture in which risk and failure are embraced,” Rajeev Behera, founder of performance management solution provider Reflektive, writes.
As discussed earlier, employees and managers in fear-based environments never take risks or make suggestions. If you see your leaders trying new things and testing different strategies, that’s a good sign.
It’s okay for your employees to feel nervous about a project or feel stressed by an upcoming deadline. But when your team members come to work every day hoping they won’t get berated by their managers or fired on the spot, you need a workplace health check and a strategy to reduce fear-based leadership.