Do You Have A Culture Of Fear? Three Questions To Ask

Is it better to be feared than loved? Most leaders today would thankfully answer loved. However, when Niccolò Machiavelli posed the question nearly 500 years ago, things may have been different.

Despite companies’ sentiments that they prefer “loved,” many corporate cultures still feed on fear. The problem is that some leaders either don’t recognize or refuse to see the culture of fear that pervades their own organizations. Like a lush green lawn masking a war of insects below, company cultures can appear healthy from above. But what appears to be freely flowing, honest information could really be a façade that conceals hours of painstaking preparation, carefully scripted responses and underlying stress.

High employee survey participation and equally positive engagement results could be covering up the reality that employees fear speaking honestly or not completing the survey. In fact, such celebrated results can, ironically, point to fearful employees and bad management.

While fear is certainly a motivating factor in human behavior, it consistently leads to bad decisions and creates barriers to success in organizations.

Fortunately, you don’t need to be Sherlock Holmes to expose a culture of fear and you don’t need to be a rocket scientist to fix it. You simply need to ask the right questions and then proactively change behavior. However, like the challenge of overcoming personal fears such as a fear of heights or tight spaces, transforming a culture requires a deep change in mindset and actions.

Below are three key questions to ask those who work for you — together with remedies if the answers are not positive. If you already suspect you have a culture of fear, ask these questions on an anonymous survey platform like SurveyMonkey.

1. Do you fear presenting to leaders in the organization?

If people who work for you are spending days or even weeks to prepare for a half-hour meeting with you or management, or if they involve numerous others to vet their work, you not only have a fearful culture, but a productivity issue, too.

Needless to say, meeting preparation is good, but overpreparation that stems from a fear of saying the wrong thing, not having an answer to every conceivable question or using a slide animation someone may not like is counterproductive and a drain on your organization. People who work for you should feel comfortable speaking and presenting to you, management and their boss. If they feel under constant stress because they are busy anticipating landmines, they will not be focused on doing their best work or sharing the things you need to know to run an effective and informed business. Plus, they will end up wasting countless hours and resources on small, nonsubstantive details that don’t ultimately matter. It does not take a mathematician to calculate the loss to your bottom line in such an environment.

2. Do you worry about losing your job?

Have you ever heard the advice, “Just keep your head down and do your job”? Or, “Just stay off his or her radar.” If so, you are not alone. In many organizations these are mantras for self-preservation. As long as you show up, do what is minimally expected and don’t rock the boat, you have a job for life. Organizations where such a mentality exists are not fun places and they don’t make people feel they do meaningful work. In fact, spending your workweek trying to avoid losing your job can be downright exhausting and demeaning. In reality, such organizations are at the highest risk of going out of business and putting everyone back in the job market or on unemployment.

James R. Detert and Amy C. Edmondson, in their Harvard Business Review article “Why Employees Are Afraid to Speak,” cite a study in which they interviewed nearly 200 individuals from all levels and functions of an organization. The company had numerous formal feedback mechanisms, including an ombudsperson and a grievance procedure. Plus, the company actively encouraged people to speak up about problems within the organization. Despite these efforts, half the employees in the study felt it was “not ‘safe to speak up’ or challenge traditional ways of doing things.” More concerning from a business perspective, the findings indicated that most respondents were reluctant to share creative ideas for improving products, processes or performance.

To compound the problem, people who spend most of their days trying to avoid scenarios that will either limit or end their career are less productive, and in most cases are only contributing a fraction of their true value.

3. Do you feel you can comfortably challenge leaders in the organization?

As Malcolm Gladwell highlighted in his insightful book Outliers: The Story of Success, having people on teams or in organizations who are afraid to challenge each other can be extremely detrimental and even deadly. A tragic example was found in the cockpits of Korean Air not so long ago. Responding to an unusually high crash rate (16 aircrafts between the 1970s and 1990s), the airline partnered with an official from Delta Air Lines to conduct a thorough analysis of their flight operations, including reviews of the airline’s cockpit voice recorders. In a shocking discovery, it was revealed that, even though a captain’s subordinates were aware of potentially deadly mistakes by their boss, they held back challenges to the pilot’s decisions for fear of breaking ranks. In many cases, this led to the death of everyone on the plane, including the crewmembers who could have averted the disaster.

In a corporate environment, a similar circumstance can play out in the C-suite of powerful and strong-willed CEOs, though hopefully not with such a catastrophic ending. Subordinates who are afraid to speak out may end up letting the CEO and the organization fail with an inferior product or bad decision because they feel the personal risk of voicing a challenge is too great. Losing their job or limiting their career is detrimental to them and their families. Better to simply stay quite and go about their day. Such behavior also stifles open and honest communication and breeds further insecurities within the organization.

An environment in which smart people are afraid to voice their honest opinions and challenges is headed for certain disaster. If you spend a lot of time, money and resources hiring the best people and then don’t listen to them, what is the point? The benefit of hiring good people is the new perspective and ideas they bring to the table.

Organizational growth is a product of challenging the way things have always been done and questioning the thought process of others. While it is always important to hire people who honestly believe in and are committed to fulfilling your organization’s purpose, it is equally important that these same people come with a diversity of thought about how to reach those goals. Groupthink — a desire for harmony and conformity — is limiting to any successful venture.

Diversity of thought and the ability to constructively and comfortably challenge others in your organization ensure that you make the best decisions. However smart you may be, you don’t have all the answers. Having the right people around you who feel empowered and safe to speak up is the only way to achieve optimum results in an organization.

Combatting A Culture Of Fear

If the answers you receive to the questions above are not what you had hoped, take the following six actions. These actions are based on best practices that have been effective in individual teams and small businesses as well as large corporate environments struggling with unhealthy or fearful cultures.

1. Set expectations. Let the people who work for you know that you want and need to hear the good, the bad and the ugly to help you make better decisions for everyone and the organization.

2. Reassure your teams. Assure people that they will never be chastised or retaliated against for speaking the truth or sharing what is on their mind, making or admitting an honest mistake or constructively challenging others.

3. Listen and close the loop. Listen to what people have to say and close the loop, letting them know why a suggestion will or will not be implemented. This is the critical and often missing link when it comes to making sure people feel truly heard and important rather than ignored and irrelevant.

4. Reward and recognize. Consistently and publicly reward and recognize people for speaking up appropriately, even if you don’t agree with the idea. In fact, you should give the most positive attention to the comments you may have taken the greatest offense to in the past.

5. Discipline. Take strong and public disciplinary action against leaders who violate a culture of trust and openness.

6. Walk the talk. Never discourage people from sharing their professional opinions, ideas or challenges. Instead, consistently, genuinely and graciously thank them and reward such behavior. Actions always matter more than words. The more people see leadership setting the example, the more they will move toward positive cultural change.

No matter how you look at your business, a culture of fear is never healthy or sustainable. In such an environment, people do limited work, are not fully engaged, look for other jobs and ultimately leave, spreading poor word of mouth about your employment brand.

Simply asking your people the right questions and gaining honest feedback—even if it is anonymous—can expose critical opportunities for cultural, organizational, people and business growth.


Published on Forbes, 25 September 2017

For more information, visit and check out my new book Purpose Meets Execution: How Winning Organizations Accelerate Engagement and Drive Profits.

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