Undoing a Culture of Fear

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What does a Culture of Fear at a company look like?

  • People are afraid to speak up for fear of what management or other team members might think.
  • People are afraid to take initiative for fear of making a mistake and getting reprimanded by management.
  • People are afraid to help each other for fear of being blamed if something goes wrong.
  • People are afraid to go above and beyond for fear of being seen as “slow” or “inefficient”.
  • People are afraid to volunteer to take the lead role on a project for fear of being made responsible and having to take the full blame if something goes wrong.
  • People are afraid to try new methods for fear of criticism and “told you so’s” from management and team if things don’t work out.
  • People are afraid to question what looks like an ineffective approach for fear of upsetting management or other team members.
  • People are afraid to give feedback to each other for fear of confrontation and drama.
  • People are afraid to talk openly about burn out or personal challenges for fear of being seen as weak and potentially jeopardizing their jobs.

Most leaders don’t set out to create a Culture of Fear. It’s usually the result of many small decisions and interactions that, over time, have eroded a sense of trust and ease of communication between team members and between management and employees.

As proud as I am of the culture we’ve built at Barrel, I have to admit that there are still lingering behaviors that reinforce a Culture of Fear. Perhaps it’s not as bad as it was in the earlier days, but I’d be lying if I said that none of the examples above applied.

What are some ways to undo a Culture of Fear? I won’t pretend to have the complete answer otherwise we’d have fixed this in our organization. However, I have a few ideas and observations on how to roll back a Culture of Fear.

Setting Clear Expectations

Ensuring that everyone on the team is clear on their responsibilities and outcomes can bring clarity and focus for employees. This in turn will reduce anxiety and fear about what they need to do in order to do well in their jobs.

Periodic Performance Evaluation: Knowing How They’re Doing

Providing timely evaluations on performance in a concrete way can help an employee know where they stand in the eyes of management (and their peers as well if you bring in a 360-style review).

A definitive evaluation (e.g. meets expectations, exceeds expectations, does not meet expectations, etc.) combined with specific steps on how they can improve will give employees a clear roadmap that sets up a productive subsequent evaluation.

Giving Feedback Privately

Over the years, I’ve made errors in criticizing employees openly and pointing out their mistakes in front of others. Some of it was out of frustration, some of it was pure ego (“I’m right, you’re wrong.”). This type of behavior is a surefire way to a) erode trust with that employee, b) shake the employee’s confidence, and c) sap their motivation to work for the company.

If someone has made a mistake or could use feedback to correct their way of doing things, it’s important to let them know. Doing this privately doesn’t guarantee things will go smoothly, but it takes the element of humiliation off the table. Done well, the private conversation can feel more like a coaching session that strengthens trust and signals to the employee that management is looking out for their long-term growth.

Turning Mistakes Into Opportunities

How leadership treats mistakes on a consistent basis is, in my view, a strong indicator of how much fear permeates a culture.

In my darker moments, my reaction to mistakes is a burning desire to find the person at fault and to make that person the scapegoat. It’s a feeling not too different from getting angry at the wide receiver for dropping a game-winning pass. You want to make the receiver responsible for the team’s loss when in fact so many other variables, including the poor performance of the coaches and other players, contributed to the outcome.

One way to combat a Culture of Fear is to accept that mistakes happen and to quickly move on to identifying the factors that led to the mistakes. A productive discussion can help ensure that the team has learned the lessons to avoid repeating the same mistakes in the future.

When mistakes are viewed as learning opportunities, people will feel safer about taking chances, asking questions, or even questioning existing processes because they’ll trust that the reaction won’t be blame but instead encouragement to learn and take ownership of the situation.

Proactive Communication

The theme running through the points I shared is proactive communication. When management leaves certain things unsaid or goes for a long period without addressing issues that may be on people’s minds, employees are left to make assumptions and speculate about management’s intentions.

When an employee doesn’t have clear expectations for performance and no clear sense of how well they’re doing, it’s only natural to wonder a) does management even care or b) am I in trouble? These are the nutrients that feed a Culture of Fear.

On a related note, how the communication gets delivered makes all the difference. Criticizing people publicly or making people feel bad about their mistakes undermines the desired effect of motivating people to do better. Consistently framing feedback as learning opportunities with specific, actionable guidance can help build more open and nurturing relationships.

It doesn’t take much to build a Culture of Fear. There’s considerable work that goes into undoing it, and it’s work that never really stops.

What other ways can a team undo a Culture of Fear?

Related topics I hope to expand upon later on:

  • Cultivating a sense of ownership through bottoms-up problem-solving
  • Creating the conditions for teammates to give each other honest feedback
  • The difference between a Culture of Fear and a Culture of Accountability

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