How to Change a Culture of Fear

A good first step is to build trust with your workers.

By Dori Meinert Dec 1, 2015
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HR Magazine December 2015While a few organizations are garnering headlines for offering generous benefits such as longer parental leaves, employees today often face intense pressure to meet ambitious targets with smaller teams and fewer resources—and expect repercussions if they don’t.

A culture of fear has permeated many workplaces since the recent recession and is taking a long-term toll on employee morale and efficiency, experts say.

“We have become much more brutal within organizations, and I don’t think that’s creating more productivity,” says Sheila M. Keegan, a London-based psychologist and business consultant who authored The Psychology of Fear in Organizations (Kogan Page, 2015).

“When people are frightened, they don’t perform well,” Keegan says, adding that research bears that out. “We all know that when we are happy and productive, we work more effectively.”

Employees suffering from high stress levels are less engaged and less productive and have higher absentee rates than those not operating under excessive pressure, according to results from Towers Watson’s 2013/2014 Global Benefits Attitudes Survey of 22,347 employees in 12 countries.

Even with improvements in the economy, fear and uncertainty continue to be fueled by technological advances that are eliminating more and more jobs. Unlike previous post-recession periods, even senior executives now worry about job security.

As a result of their fear, corporate leaders have reverted to command-and-control mode. Many organizations have become obsessed with managing workers through measuring, monitoring, goal-setting and dictating processes to reach those goals.

While targets can be useful, Keegan writes in her book, “At worst, they can pervert productivity and undermine morale.”

The intense focus on measurement and control is a reflection of senior leaders’ lack of trust in their managers and other workers, she argues.

How do you know if a culture of fear exists at your organization?

One telling sign is when employees sit quietly during meetings, afraid to speak up until senior leaders leave the room. Employees at such organizations also tend to keep a low profile. They may work to the rule, doing exactly what is required of them but no more. Their suggestions in the past were rejected, so they have stopped sharing their thoughts.

If they aren’t allowed to challenge an idea directly, they may do so in a subversive way or they may simply decide to leave the company, Keegan says.

Fear can quickly spread and undermine the morale of the entire workforce, she adds. Once it’s entrenched, it is difficult to roust.

How can HR change a culture of fear?

“The best, but not easy, route is to get people talking and being honest with each other,” Keegan says.

Her advice:

Build trust. That means being straightforward, admitting mistakes, keeping promises, showing vulnerability and letting go of grievances, Keegan says.

Improve your listening skills. Focus on what your employees are saying to you. Hear and interpret their verbal and nonverbal communication. Maintain a neutral and open attitude. Most importantly, don’t judge.

Encourage risk-taking and reward courage. Urge employees to experiment, learn and improvise. Help them rediscover their sense of joy and intrinsic reward of working.

Treat employees with respect. Acknowledge their worth and help them succeed.

“At the end of the day, it’s about relationships,” Keegan says. “The more we can trust each other and work together, the more effective we’re going to be.”

Most studies show that happy, engaged employees are more productive, she says. People are motivated by the sense of accomplishment they get from doing a job well.

“If you are nice to people and support them, they become loyal,” Keegan says. “I don’t think it’s terribly complicated.”

Dori Meinert is senior writer/editor for HR Magazine.

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