Stepping Beyond a Culture of Fear?

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By Lindsay Macintosh, CHRP

In today’s workplace where change and uncertainty are rampant, managing fear in the workplace is essential for organizations to sustain themselves and stay competitive.  Unfortunately, many organizations continue to operate under a culture of fear.

Culture of Fear at Work
Cultures of fear can be found in an organization with a strong hierarchal structure with a one way top down communication channel.  Micromanagement is frequently present. Communication from managers and supervisors tend to be condescending and aggressive. Often, values and expected behaviours are not clearly defined, and there is a general lack of clarity and alignment in managing work.

Employees work according to the wishes of their manager—or they face some kind of punishment.  Performance management is based on “what” and not “how.” As a result, organizations with a fear culture face low morale, and high rates of absenteeism and turnover.

An environment where employees experience fear negatively affects individual performance and the success of the organization.  Fear fosters only short-term thinking—enabling employees to produce only short term performance—and does not lead to long-term performance.

Solution Not HR’s Alone
Fortunately, employees need not sit and suffer in silence.  For any organization to succeed and remain competitive in today’s world, managers must aim to reduce and manage fear in their workplace.
Arlene Keis, CEO of go2HR, a BC tourism and hospitality resource organization that helps BC’s tourism and hospitality industry attract and retain its workforce, says,

“Addressing fear in the workplace should not be left up to the human resources department.  Managers and front line staff have a lot of tools at their disposal including HR management tools in small to medium sized businesses and even large companies”.

Keis adds, “It is very important to understand that HR best practices are very critical and that front line staff must be trained in HR best practices.”

The Face of Common Fears
As to common employee concerns, employees fear:

  • change or ambiguity;
  • consequences from not achieving a task or goal;
  • poor performance appraisal;
  • being demoted;
  • denial of pay raises;
  • menial tasks;
  • losing their job;
  • looking foolish or making a mistake; and
  • the boss, management, or co-workers.

More concerning is that in a state of fear, employees become withdrawn, depressed, and even abusive.

Multiple Workplace Impacts
Fear creates an unsafe workplace where there is distrust, conflict, and low productivity.  Learning, performance, and the flow of creative constructive ideas are inhibited.  Team building is minimal.  Trust, willingness to speak up, taking risks, and trying new things are stifled.  Employees are reluctant to address workplace issues and file complaints.  Fear prevents employees from learning from their mistakes thereby errors repeat.

Moreover, with little opportunity for growth and advancement, employees show little of no loyalty to the organization—being more worried about losing their jobs and protecting themselves.

A workplace with a culture of fear is highly competitive where departments and employees compete against each other.  This creates anxiety, destroys trust, and brings out negative behaviours.  Employees focus on eliminating threats from management and between themselves, often seeking to avoid reprisal at the expense of others.

Identifying Fear Factors in Management
As for identifying trouble spots in your organization, managers who lead by fear:

  • are highly aggressive; this often includes intimidation and bullying that instil fear;
  • sets unreasonable expectations;
  • do not listen;
  • create lack of support;
  • are cold and emotionally distant, moody, or reactive with excessive emotions;
  • do not ‘walk the talk’ (their behaviour contradicts what they say);
  • use the, ‘Do as I say and not as I do’ approach;
  • are inconsistent;
  • keep their employees in the dark  by making decisions secretly; and
  • deal with poor performance with the threat of reprisal.

Managers must exercise greater proactivity in addressing workplace issues as they arise.  They must be on the lookout for problems in morale, absenteeism, turnover, performance, and performance standards.  Most importantly, managers must assess the work environment and their own management style to determine if any fear factors exist.

Assess and Move Past Fears
If fear factors exist, managers must determine the following:

  • the levels of trust;
  • communication (one way or two way, feedback) information employees have to carry out their work
    what employees are fearful of, what is causing the fear, and how it affects performance;
  • are there any negative behaviours and what are they; and
  • to what extent are employees engaged and the level of morale.

To eliminate and effectively manage fear it is crucial to:

  • establish clear expectations;
  • promote fairness and equitable treatment;
  • ensure employees are able to speak freely within the organization;
  • never allow employees to feel alone;
  • limit the rule book – too many rules hamper trust;
  • measure systems, not people, ensure proper feedback channels between management and employees;
  • develop recruiting strategies  to ensure no managers and employees that may cause fear;
  • provide training opportunities to learn and grow; and
  • encourage recognition and appreciation.

Managing fear is critical in HR best practices.  To stay competitive in today’s world of uncertainty, organizations must see that employee experience is just as important as customer experience.

Lindsay Macintosh, CHRP has over 20 years experience in payroll and benefits in the retail, foodservice and logging industries.

(PeopleTalk Fall 2015)

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