Q: I read something on your website a while ago about fear in the workplace. I’m a manager and I feel this is a problem where I work. Could you please expand on this and give some tips to deal with it?

A: We have all seen it before. The boss or a high-level manager walks into a meeting where employees are engaged in a lively discussion about a work issue. Suddenly, a shift occurs – the conversation changes as many employees fall silent; others become timid and more acquiescent.

Many years ago, some managers considered it a good sign that employees “knew their place,” believing that fear resulted in employees working harder. This old school thinking does not hold up today. In fact, this type of behavior is often the death knell for today’s modern organization.

Fear can come from many different factors, including:

  • fear of change or ambiguity
  • fear of the consequences from not achieving a task/goal
  • fear of losing one’s job or a poor performance appraisal
  • fear of looking foolish or making a mistake
  • fear of an individual such as a boss, manager or even other co-workers

A work environment where employees experience fear can be debilitating and can negatively affect their performance and, thus, the entire organization. While it can produce bursts of performance in the short term, it does not lead to long-lasting results. This is because fear ultimately stifles creativity and decreases employees’ trust and willingness to speak up, take risks and try new things. Fear also prevents employees from learning from their mistakes, so it dooms them and the organization to repeat the same errors over and over again.

Perhaps most debilitating is that fear-based management cultures foster short-term thinking as people become defensive, search to avoid reprisal and focus on eliminating real or perceived threats instead of working collaboratively toward the desired outcomes.

It is safe to say that nearly all of us have, at some time, experienced fear in the workplace. While it may never be totally eliminated, management’s aim should be to decrease it and manage it overall.

Dealing with the issue of fear at work is the responsibility of management, but to do so requires leaders to do an honest assessment of their present work environment and their own management style. As a leader, if you have any doubt as to whether fear exists in your workplace, here are a few ideas to consider:

  • Listen to and observe how employees behave in meetings. Meetings provide many cultural clues to what is acceptable work behavior.
  • Ensure that your managers make it a habit to catch employees doing something right rather than a game of “gotcha” – that is, catching employees doing something wrong. We guarantee the latter approach will result in a defensive, fear-ridden work environment.
  • Talk to employees or managers who will be straight with you about their observations on this issue and ask them a few questions:
  1. To what degree are our employees encouraged to innovate vs. conform?
  2. To what degree is dissent tolerated in the workplace?
  3. What happens when mistakes occur at work? How does leadership respond?

When mistakes occur at work, rather than getting upset and reprimanding the employee, first look in the mirror and determine what your role has been in the failure. Were expectations unclear? Was a faulty system or process in place? Then sit down and ask the employee what happened and what he or she thinks could be done to prevent it in the future.

When people do speak up and talk about mistakes or problems, managers must listen, acknowledge they hear what was said and collect the real facts before assigning blame. While it is all too human to respond too quickly and overreact, an effective leader that manages fear is patient and understanding.

Most importantly, managers must be willing to share their own mistakes. This sends an important message that mistakes are considered opportunities for learning. Leaders must set the tone that when no mistakes or mishaps are reported, they are skeptical. Managers must never “kill the messenger”; rather, they should be rewarded.

Driving the fear out of the workplace is essential to unleashing employees’ potential, confidence and innovation – vital ingredients to a thriving, successful business.

Consider how one of our 2007 Top Small Workplaces, Alaska Wildland Adventures, addresses this issue:”We are a company made up of people who are good communicators and also possess strong personalities, two traits that often do not mix well. Problems that arise are addressed from a standpoint of ‘What sorts of ways can we do this better?’ and ‘How can we assure this doesn’t happen again?’ When a miscommunication happens, we first think of ways to fix the problem, develop a new system, or be innovative in changing our approach. Staff are not blamed or embarrassed when a mistake happens; it is simply fixed and then we move on. This speaks to the culture of the company, one that is progressive, moves ahead and looks to the future. We all care too much and work too hard to spend time on the ‘ad nauseam’ end of business, and all work to support each other and see the company succeed.”