Fear is shockingly common in the workplace. Here’s why creating a learning culture is the first step in helping your employees overcome their fear and re-harness your organization’s true potential.
Having started off in the UK Civil Service and remaining insulated by an accelerated graduate career track, I spent much of the early part of my career completely oblivious to the kind of fear that many people experience in their workplaces. I was lucky enough to never have to fear losing my job, and my sole worry was about making sure I was intellectually capable of the increasingly complex assignments I was being offered. I missed Barry Glassner’s 1999 book The Culture of Fear, which was written after September 11 and argued that Americans were afraid of the wrong things and that our perception of danger had increased rather than the actual risk level. Lacking any personal experience with the phenomenon that Glassner described, I was shocked by the workplace cultures of fear that I encountered as a leadership consultant for international firms in the early 2000s.
The first time I encountered real fear at work was around 2003 when I was working with a global car manufacturer. The company had taken leadership development in-house and was ruled by the concept of leaders teaching leaders. Leaders were unquestioningly revered and bad behaviour went unpunished. So when I carried out a series of workshops with the employees who were being – badly – led, I was shocked by their feelings. They were cowed and angry. They stayed because they felt they had no other employment options and resented their jobs. So much human energy and potential wasted.
Fast-forward to 2017 and surely things have changed? After all, footloose and fancy-free, Generations Y and Z don’t have the goal of long employment with any one company, and move on if they are not respected. Yet the sad reality is that I continue to encounter cultures of fear at work. Fear can certainly drive people to action, but mostly avoiding risk and covering their tracks, rather than initiative or innovation. We simply can’t afford to waste human spirit or human endeavour in this way.
In this article I explore the sources of fear, as understanding is the first step towards change, and then suggest some remedies.
The fear generators
Whether perception or reality, the world is a pretty scary place to live today. After a period of inflation-free growth, we rediscovered global recession in the 2008 crash. There is more warmongering talk among nations’ leaders than we have seen for decades. Global warming is accelerating after slowing for a while. And just as we are discovering more and more ways to prolong human life, artificial intelligence could make humankind extinct unless we manage it more carefully than we are currently. So, a worrying context in which business operates.
More specifically, what creates a climate of fear within an organization? There are five major causes:
All of these concepts are perfectly acceptable if balanced. For example, it’s fine to pay attention to short-term results as long as this focus is balanced by the capacity to think about and nurture longer-term issues, such as investment and strategic change. Organizations and leaders get into trouble when one side of the balance weighs more than the other – for example, when intellect is prized way above feelings. So the underlying problem is an unhealthy imbalance towards each of these concepts. None of them is more important than another, so let’s describe each of them in turn.
The tyranny of markets has been well documented, with continuous search for growth and close attention paid to quarterly results. The anguish this can create inside an organization has to be seen to be believed. Executives in listed companies are under huge pressure to produce continuously improving results four times a year. The fear of not making the numbers is pervasive because of the expected kneejerk reaction on the share price. If growth (new markets, increased productivity and so on) is not achievable, then other, more pernicious policies take root to give the appearance of continuous growth. The challenge with these policies, such as indiscriminate, company-wide percentage cost cuts, travel and training bans, is that employees lose a sense of control, as HQ-ordered cuts appear unpredictably. The ability to plan is reduced, the feeling of being helpless increases and initiative wanes. Yet we need motivated employees with initiative to take the local decisions that work in local markets.
Perfectionism often starts from the noblest of ambitions – to do the best possible and provide high levels of service and product. But getting things right is very different from making them perfect. People striving for flawlessness set higher and higher performance standards, accompanied by increasingly critical self-evaluations. On an individual level, perfectionism is often accompanied by psychological disorders like depression. On an organizational scale, mistakes are outlawed as everyone strives to get it right first time. Employees are afraid to be in the wrong, afraid to make a mistake, afraid of being blamed and afraid to take chances. Risk-taking, experimentation and innovation disappear.
The third on the list is intellectualism, which is defined in the dictionary as ‘the exercise of the intellect at the expense of the emotions’. Being smart is not a bad thing – we need big brains to cope with the complexity of a globally connected business world. The challenge here is that human beings are a complex mixture of the rational and the irrational; of IQ and EQ; of intellect and emotions. We know that the most effective leaders tell stories more than present pages of facts and figures, and appeal to the heart to motivate employees. A world driven solely by intellect is a cold and inhuman place. But how does this generate fear? If we inhabit a smart world, we need to be smart and be seen to be smart. Analysis, reasoning and logic prevail. Intellectual cut and thrust can leave individuals feeling clever or, if on the losing side, diminished and foolish. And trying to run an irrational world through logic can lead to failure and increased feelings of inadequacy. I remember working with one chief executive who wanted to encourage contributions from every employee. I watched as he lost his temper and intellectually decimated an employee in public. At that point I realized why he couldn’t get ideas out of people.
Pugilism next. This means a culture of sparring and fighting. In these organizational cultures, competition is seen as a way to improve individual performance and so drive higher levels of organizational performance. Handled well, it does just that. An Olympic rowing team gets better because each team member competes to be in the boat and then competes to be the best in the boat. Because they always keep the purpose of what they are doing in mind (winning the gold medal), individuals compete so that the team as a whole gets better. The challenge is that this clear sightline through to organizational purpose can get scrambled and lost in a business. The company may be too large, communication can be too patchy, or disagreement among senior leaders can all blur understanding of why the organization is doing what it does and how an individual is contributing towards this. So competing for the organization to do better can too easily deteriorate into competing with my peers so I achieve more or look better. This is only exacerbated by the tournament model of leadership development: in a pyramid, it’s essentially a knockout contest. So an individual’s fears range from not doing as well as peers, right through to losing their job. It’s an ‘I win-you lose’ world.
And lastly, hierarchicalism – I know, clumsy word, driven by my desire to have symmetry in the isms! Hierarchies are natural – put any group of humans together and a hierarchy will emerge. The business world has been trying to reduce its number of layers under a variety of initiatives for the last 30 years, flattening and delayering as much as possible. Yet hierarchy remains a fact of life for most in work. It’s an efficient way of organizing to get work done. Yet when overdone, it becomes a problem. Lengthened hierarchies mean senior managers become remote leaders. Good news speeds upwards, bad news is buried in case the boss gets angry. Remote leaders lose touch with what’s actually going on in the business. At the top of organizations with extended hierarchies, it’s all too easy for the most senior people to become arrogant – top dogs in a very high pile. As in the car company example at the start of this article, bad behaviour develops unchecked and nothing puts more fear into a system than thoughtless demands or even outright bullying. Even where senior leaders are benign, others may make demands in their name – “the executive committee wants this by tomorrow” – either to service the hierarchy or to get their own demands met. Bureaucracy creeps in, work slows down and decisions get pushed upwards. People are afraid to take decisions without the boss countersigning them and form committees to disperse accountability. I recently worked with an international company where the chief financial officer had to sign off personally on bottled water being served in any meeting. It genuinely gets that silly.
How to rebuild a healthy culture?
The first step is to acknowledge that there is a problem. Too many senior executives are in denial about the shabby state of their organizational culture or they don’t think it matters – yet we all know that culture eats strategy for breakfast.
The second step is to take measures to get fear and lethargy out and excitement and ownership back into the system. If the problem is bad behaviour, leaders need to manage themselves better so that they can improve how they lead others. They also need to reward good behaviour, not just financial results. One of the many reasons why Jack Welch was voted ‘Manager of the Century’ by Fortune magazine in 2000 was his insistence on a balanced scorecard. Individuals were measured on performance, balanced with how well they lived cultural values. High performance with poor values was proscribed, even to the point of removing the employee from the organization. Poor performance with good values was seen first and foremost as a development situation, with coaching to improve performance as the initial step. Too often we close our eyes to poor behaviour if the money keeps rolling in.
Thirdly, competition needs to be Olympic standard – competing only to improve together and better achieve the purpose of the whole organization, not just to keep our unit successful at the expense of others. If every individual understands how their work contributes to the organization’s purpose, it puts pride and ownership back into the job. If I feel valued as a human being, not just as a work cog, I will want to put in more effort for the good of all. Individuals need an enterprise-wide perspective so they know when and how their contribution makes a positive difference. Fourthly, an external focus is critical. If we know what the market and customers want and we are aware of how our competition is doing, then energy is rightly directed towards pleasing customers more than our competition. The trouble with infighting is that all we see is each other, rather than our customers and their evolving needs.
And last – and most important – we need to develop a culture of learning. There is a direct link between higher levels of education and gross domestic product; that is, better-educated people produce more wealth. So we need to keep on learning after school is behind us. It’s impossible to change and grow without making mistakes, yet too often mistakes are seen as unforgiveable errors. Mistakes are opportunities to move forwards, to learn and to help others leapfrog the pitfalls we failed to avoid. If we could learn even this one lesson, it wouldn’t only eradicate fear, it would also help work become a lot more fun.
— Dr Liz Mellon is chair of Dialogue’s editorial board.
An adapted version of this article appeared on the Dialogue Review website.