The Culture of Fear Problem

If you work at a large organization, there’s probably a major culture initiative going on. Themes like diversity, work/life balance, innovation, customer focus, reputation, respect, and engagement are peppered throughout presentations you see given regularly by senior executives. You might even serve or have a friend on a “culture committee” tasked to carry out initiatives locally.

I love all of these culture initiatives. But after working with dozens of companies who have them (because we’re often asked to be a project within them!), I’m convinced their multi-million dollar investments in consultants, employee time, internal marketing, and the like may only see a partial return because a blocker is often in their way:

A culture of fear.

A culture of fear is evidenced by:

  • People spending more time preserving power centers or simply feeling like they have to cover their ass constantly than feeling the freedom to take risks on behalf of the company
  • Higher churn rates and job dissatisfaction levels
  • Trouble retaining high quality people, especially younger employees
  • Forgiving/making excuses for management issues for the sake of productivity: “People hate working for him/her, but there’s no denying they get it done!”
  • Arcane employee evaluation systems which have long proven to have biases, but persevere nonetheless

Some people love a culture of fear. If the company is doing well financially, so what? Fear is working. But a company with such a culture is slowly rotting from within. Increasingly few want to work under such conditions and simply won’t put up with it. And this isn’t a generational “millennials won’t work hard” problem. This is a “your competitors have found smarter and more effective ways to work” problem.

So what to do? Here’s what I’ve observed at organizations that are as big and hierarchical as they come, but seem to be on a path to solving this problem.

First, dismantling a culture of fear starts at the very top. What tone does the leader set in his or her own language within the company? Do they employ a team of vipers for their leadership team, or are they known for fostering a culture of working to promote others and being good managers?

Second, has the company allowed the right processes to be put in place to give people an independent voice? This is where we are often asked to help, by giving people an outlet to have and implement their own ideas, or helping to decide strategic direction by making forecasts. In general, activities that make people feel empowered and equal, not unseen and unheard.

Third, have leaders received counseling in how to treat people differently? Have they been made aware of how their behavior may be negatively affecting others? And in the most extreme cases, have the most toxic managers been asked to leave?

Even if we’re often part of a culture initiative, before we work with our clients, I ask them if they feel they’re ready to introduce a technology that promotes transparency, more democratic decision making, and empowerment. Most simply say “yes, of course,” but then we often come to find they really weren’t, and our job of implementation is that much more challenging.

A culture of fear often masks itself as meritocratic or something else noble, but in the end, it’s still often nothing more than another form of bullying. Fortunately there are places cited as great places to work and sit at the top of their industries, so we know there is a better way.

In the meantime, if you’re about to embark on your own culture initiative, just make sure you’ve actually identified the disease before you try to prescribe the medicine.

Adam Siegel, CEO Cultivate Labs

By: Adam Siegel

Adam is the CEO and Co-Founder of Cultivate Labs.

change management

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