Makarios Consulting Blog

Detecting a Culture of Fear

I (Tim) recall hearing about a leader who, when asked what his management style was, stated without apology, “Fear.” He purposefully and aggressively worked to instill fear in his people, believing that if they were afraid of him they would work better.

You are likely repulsed by the thought of such a “leadership style,” and rightly so. First and foremost, it is cruel since it causes excessive stress and anxiety in the people on the receiving end of such conduct. Secondly, it does not work. Dr. William Edwards Deming, a professor, author, lecturer, and management consultant, offered 14 key principles for management. Principle 8 is “Drive out fear, so that everyone may work effectively for the company.” The inverse is also true: create fear, and no one will work effectively.

Here’s the problem: unlike the dysfunctional leader I heard about who intentionally tried to make people afraid of him, plenty of leaders unintentionally create a culture of fear in their businesses or on their teams. These are leaders who mean well and want to lead well, but are unaware of the damaging effects of their words and behaviors on their team members or employees. For example:

  • Scenario 1: A strong, directive CEO states his idea for how to solve a problem. When the CFO pushes back to voice valid financial concerns with the solution, the CEO accuses him of being short-sighted and anti-innovation and wonders aloud if he is the “right fit” for being part of the leadership team. The CFO fears for his reputation and his job and vows to just go along with the CEO’s ideas in the future.
  • Scenario 2: The head of sales encourages her team members to come to her if they have any problems with their accounts. However, the last time an account rep asked for help with a very good but very troublesome client, the head of sales re-assigned the account to someone else and gave the account rep grunt-work better suited to a lower-level employee. The other team members now keep their mouths shut about problems.
  • Scenario 3: The COO of a manufacturing firm challenges his staff to come up with creative ways to increase productivity and cut costs. As the weeks go by, he wonders why no new ideas have been submitted. But his staff remember the inventive employee who came up with a truly innovative way to improve operations. She was let go for specious causes. Everyone knows the real reason was that her brilliance threatened the ego of the COO.

In our work with leaders, we have seen scenarios like this play out many times. These are not leaders who are actively trying to squelch their people. They are simply leaders who may not understand how their words, coupled with their authority, can create an oppressive culture of fear that destroys collaboration (Scenario 1). They are leaders who may think they are taking appropriate action to solve problems when they are actually undercutting their people’s initiative (Scenario 2). They are leaders who may not have good self-awareness to realize the true motivations for their decisions (Scenario 3).

Given that it is possible to unintentionally create fear in your team members or employees, how do you detect a culture of fear? Here are three questions to ask … but, you have to be open to the answers!

1. Do my team members present diverse perspectives, opinions, and ideas in meetings?

If you do not have a healthy dialogue happening in your meetings, you should examine the dynamics that are at play. People only speak out when they feel safe. How do you respond verbally to people whose opinions differ from yours? What are the non-verbal signals that you send? (See Scenario 1.)

2. How do my team members approach me when there is a problem?

People should be able to approach you with confidence and talk directly about any problems they are encountering. If you find that people never come to you with problems, sugarcoat or minimize issues, or seem to cringe when they admit to a difficulty, you likely have a culture of fear. You need to determine why that is the case. Begin with a self-assessment: what is your reaction to problems in general? What is your response to your people when they are experiencing difficulties? (See Scenario 2.)

3. When was the last time one of my team members came up with a winning solution?

Fear undercuts innovative thought processes; if your team isn’t flowing with creative juices,  you want to find out why. Do you celebrate ideas that are not your own – or resent them? Have you created a place where failure is viewed as a learning experience – or as a death warrant? Are people rewarded for innovation – or punished? (See Scenario 3.)

Remember: as a leader, your employees or your team members will take their cue from you. If you want the best performance from your people – as you surely do – take the time to assess what kind of culture you have today. If you detect a culture of fear, there is work to do … and it starts with you.