3 min read

Practical steps for leading away from a culture of fear

Practical steps for leading away from a culture of fear

How confident are you that employees in your organization feel safe to speak up, share concerns and report mistakes?

If employees are reluctant to do these things because they’re worried they will be judged, shamed, attacked, or released from employment, you can be sure that you are operating in a culture of fear.
In cultures of fear, tolerance for errors is low or non-existent, and there is little consideration of how the working environment might have contributed to mistakes. The focus is often on who is to blame rather than what was learned and how to avoid making the same mistake in the future. 

Dr. Amy Edmondson, a leading expert in psychological safety, says organizations waste millions of dollars when fear prevails and employees feel this way. 

In safe environments, employees learn, grow and do great work

However, in a psychologically safe organization, Edmondson says “people feel free to share ideas, mistakes, and criticisms. They are less worried about protecting their image and more focused on doing great work. That is, they’re free to focus on and contribute to the company’s mission.”

In these environments, leaders do not overreact and place blame. They are careful about not causing emotional harm and focus on learning and improvement. Colleagues work together to understand why a mistake occurred and how to reduce the risk of it being repeated.

A quick test to evaluate the degree to which fear exists in your workplace
Moving from a culture of fear to one of inclusion and psychological safety begins with gathering feedback and capturing a snapshot of the current climate. 

It makes sense to measure and manage fear in your organization. Research suggests that organizations with high-trust cultures see:

  • Stock market returns two to three times greater than the market average
  • Turnover rates that are 50 lower than industry competitors

  • An increase in innovation, customer and patient satisfaction, employee engagement, organizational agility, and more.

Using yes or no responses, answer the five questions below. Then invite all employees or a sampling to take the test. Offer the opportunity for them to respond anonymously and compare your responses. 

  1. Do employees trust their leaders to talk about psychological safety concerns? 

  2. Do employees trust their peers and leaders to listen and give them the benefit of the doubt?

  3. Do employees believe their leaders are honest and trustworthy? 

  4. Do employees believe their leaders will do what they say and keep their word?

  5. Do employees believe it is safe to report mistakes? 

If you respond to any question with “No,” there is a high probability you work in a culture of fear. The degree and intensity may vary from employee to employee, depending on their seniority, diversity, perception of inclusion (i.e., feel welcome, valued, and included), and title. 

You can begin to drive fear out of your organization by identifying and addressing toxic behaviour. Below are a few examples of negative behaviours and steps you can take to address them.

  • Values are just artefacts. Your values should be core tenets that guide how people behave and make decisions in your organization. If actions and values are misaligned, and people are afraid to raise concerns when they observe this, then your corporate values are of little value and won’t be taken seriously by employees. 

  • Results take priority over people’s experiences. Focusing on results and not how they are obtained can negatively impact the employee experience. Be clear that results and success are important but never at the expense of values or psychological safety.

  • Only select messages reach the CEO. In a culture of fear, people often filter information before sharing with the CEO and senior leaders. People should feel safe reporting both good news and bad. 
  • Failure to deal with bad behaviour. Ensure all leaders adhere to values at all times. Make it clear that behaviour that contravenes your organizational values will not be tolerated regardless of the individual’s role in the organization.

  • Aggressive behaviour is accepted or overlooked. When leaders get angry and lash out, it can create anxiety, make team members nervous and distracted, and affect their well-being. You must make it clear that no one in the organization has the right to lose their temper and act aggressively. Passion and intensity are acceptable, if the line is not crossed, and employees feel safe raising concerns if they feel someone has gone too far.

  • Employees use self-protection strategies. Many behaviours indicate employees feel the need to protect themselves. A common tactic is using cc and bcc unnecessarily. Employees often do this when they fear reprisal or lack confidence in sharing messages with only those who need to be involved. When people feel safe and supported, they worry less about optics and protecting themselves. 

  • Confusion about roles and accountability. Don’t let confusion about priorities, roles, accountability and responsibilities create unnecessary stress. Check yourself or ask managers to ensure employees are clear about expectations and their contribution to goals and outcomes.

You can foster a culture where differences are embraced, people feel safe to share and collaborate, and mistakes are seen as an opportunity for learning and growth. Like creating a physically safe workplace, there is no end point. Creating a psychologically safe workplace that is not driven by fear simply requires intention, time and commitment to continuous improvement. 

Get to know the author – Dr.  Bill Howatt

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