When Fear Takes Hold in Organizational Culture

What place does fear have in your organization?

A fear-based culture is not always easy to spot, at least at first. When this topic comes up with my coaching clients we discuss indicators to watch for, including:

      1. Workers overly focus on daily goals.
      2. Supervisors overly focus on results, infractions, and order
      3. Problems are ignored
      4. Communication is via rumor
      5. Uncertainty and suspicion are status-quo
      6. Stress and illness are common
      7. The blame game (and CYA) run rampant
      8. Collaboration does not exist
      9. Advancement is rare
      10. Team-players are identified by their willingness to support the culture of fear
      11. Mistakes are not tolerated

Certainly, a healthy level of fear is vital for individuals and organizations. However, leaders contribute to a culture of fear by doing nothing; unfortunately, these leaders are often unaware that their leadership is fear-based.

Instead of trusting (and inspiring) their colleagues and employees, they employ fear as a means to control.

These leaders also create silos within their organization (isolating lines of business, departments, teams, and individuals) and set unrealistic goals and expectations.

Fear-based leaders may have good intentions, but when their own fears are left unaddressed, they manifest into a heightened sense of urgency.

Locomotion Goal Pursuit

In a recent HBR article, researchers examined what happens when leaders and organizations emphasize urgent action over thoughtful consideration.

In the study, Research: Organizations That Move Fast Really Do Break Things, (HBR 2020), a “move fast and break things” attitude exposes fast-growing organizations to significant risks. Psychologists refer to this tendency as “locomotion goal pursuit.” Organizations who emphasize urgent action over thoughtful consideration are more likely to have unethical decision making.

The researchers found that by offsetting a strong locomotion motivation with a strong assessment motivation, an organization can grow conscientiously.

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