The 8 Clear Signs of a Workplace Culture of Fear

The 8 Clear Signs of a Workplace Culture of Fear

(Editor’s Note – This post originally appeared on TLNT and was used to populate CultureU for the site launch)

Two major incidents in the last week made me think about the signs of a culture of fear since fear is the ultimate culture killer!

Ex-Rutgers basketball coach Mike Rice was interviewed byGood Morning America host Robin Roberts about the abusive behavior that led to his firing nearly seven months ago. He proclaimed “I’ve changed” as he showed remorse for his actions that included pushing players, throwing basketballs at their heads, screaming obscenities, and using anti-gay slurs.

Rutgers of course isn’t the only organization that’s been horrified by something in their culture.

The role of leadership in building culture

It was ironic this occurred in the same week the NFL assigned a special investigator regarding the NFL Miami Dolphins and the entire situation surrounding the departure of Jonathan Martin from the team due to potential hazing. Richie Incognito, a player suspended from the team for conduct detrimental to the team, was interviewed and said “all this stuff coming out speaks to the culture of our locker room” and “it’s a product of the environment.”

Are you kidding me? Talk about no individual accountability! This investigation and the media frenzy surrounding it will uncover behavior that will make the Mike Rice-Rutgers situation look like a minor lapse in leadership, and will go far beyond any debate about workplace hazing.

Details about the incredibly poor judgment of Miami Dolphins leaders are already leaking out and any blame directed towards the “locker room culture” completely overlooks the role of leadership in building an effective culture.

Does fear exist in your organization?

Fear is the ultimate culture killer. Most organizations have some level of fear that holds back the potential of their organization on many fronts.

It’s not always a major incident that thrusts the subject of fear and unacceptable behavior into the limelight. Fear at some level and the lack of full alignment around values and expected behaviors is rampant in many organizations today.

Fear slows organizations down, causes hesitation, drives stress, and keeps literally millions of individuals from reaching their potential in effectively supporting their organizations.

What are signs of fear to watch for in your organization? Here are eight (8) signs, and these DO NOT indicate there is the presence of a severe issue like at Rutgers and the Miami Dolphins.

The 8 signs to watch for

However, these DO indicate fear at some level may be holding back the performance of your organization. And, there is likely a negative impact on many individuals from any one of these signs.

  1. Bad behavior is not visibly confronted. Behavior issues, if confronted at all, are behind closed doors and the other members of the organization have no idea whether any substantial corrective action is being taken. If behavior doesn’t improve with the individual in question then some may assume the behavior is considered an acceptable way to deliver results. Bad behavior needs confronted clearly and respectfully when it occurs so there is no question surrounding acceptable behavior. It’s fine to follow-up in private later.
  2. Compensation, incentives and/or promotions are based on results, not results AND behavior. Results at any cost could become the norm if behavior is not a priority and evaluated based on feedback from others. Just one leader showing unacceptable behavior can have a severe and negative impact on many individuals.
  3. “Explosions” are evident periodically from one or more top leaders. This is not about a passionate call to action from a top leader. I am referring to negative, critical explosions that do not motivate unless it’s purely out of fear. Leaders work very hard to build trust but a negative explosion raises fear and may raise doubts or second thoughts in people about taking action.
  4. Pre-meetings are the norm. This behavior is often rampant in many large organizations but even impacts small businesses. Presentations, proposals, new ideas and other subjects must be reviewed with lower levels, senior managers or other groups before a meeting with a top leader. The focus can end up being on what a leader wants to hear versus what they need to hear.
  5. Communication is poor or one-way. Leaders often underestimate the importance of communication or they neglect to design communication sessions to build trust and open two-way communication. Q&A may take place but result in “softball” questions instead of surfacing drama, rumors, fears and areas where there is a lack of clarity.
  6. Email is used to cover your rear or is not proactively used. it may be common to reply to all or copy countless people to make sure everyone is in the loop. On the other hand, Emails that need sent or should involve copying individuals at a higher level or other personnel are not sent due to fear or concern about how they will react.
  7. A general lack of clarity and alignment about managing work. the lack of clarity and alignment around strategies, priorities, goals, measures and supporting expected values / behaviors drives uncertainty and “fear” at some level. This fear causes hesitation and holds back proactive action. A sign of an effective culture is that “people act on what they know” instead of having second thoughts, hesitation, and fears about action.
  8. Values and expected behaviors are not specifically defined and reinforced. Values may be defined on the website or poster on the wall but they haven’t been translated to expected behaviors so they are consistently interpreted. See ZapposRitz Carlton and The Container Store for great examples. Systems for hiring, management, development, communication and motivation are not designed to specifically reinforce the values and expected behaviors.

CEOs, owners of sports teams, university administrators and other top leaders know culture is important but some neglect to drive out fear and relentlessly reinforce the culture they desire to build or maintain.

This list barely touches the surface, what other signs of fear did I miss? Do you agree that fear is the ultimate culture killer?

About the Author

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Tim Kuppler

Faculty Tim Kuppler is the founder of Culture University and former Director of Culture and Organization Development for Human Synergistics, a 40+ year pioneer in the workplace culture field where he led collaboration and partnering efforts with culture experts, consulting firms, industry organizations and other groups interested in making a meaningful difference in their organization, those they support, and, ultimately, society. Currently with the Compass culture division of the staffing powerhouse, Insight Global, Tim authored Build the Culture Advantage, Deliver Sustainable Performance with Clarity and Speed, which was endorsed as the "go-to" resource for building a performance culture. He previously led major culture transformations as a senior executive with case studies featured as part of the 2012 best-selling book – Leading Culture Change in Global Organizations. He was also President of Denison Consulting, a culture assessment and consulting firm and is an accomplished speaker and recognized as a Top 100 leadership conferences speaker on Tim's 20 years of culture and performance improvement experience includes the rare mix of executive leadership, coaching, and consulting knowledge necessary to help leaders quickly improve team effectiveness and results as they focus on their top performance priorities, challenges, and/or goals. He networks extensively in the workplace culture field in order to learn and apply the latest insights from many experts.