Jun 13, 2024 | 3
Minute Read

Culture Checkup: How to Eliminate Fear in Your Organizational Culture


Workplace culture is a hot topic in the business world, but many organizations aren’t sure where to start when it comes to assessing their current culture. 

A study in the Journal of Organizational Behavior found that “a positive culture boosts performance, but performance alone does not create a positive culture.” This means that leaders cannot solely point to high performance as an indication that their current methods are working—cultures, where distrust, bullying, lack of engagement, and fear are commonplace, will struggle to accomplish their greatest potential, even if their current performance is high. 

Creating the kind of culture that inspires growth and attracts top talent cannot happen when fear is present in the workplace. 

Forbes shares that, “Nearly everyone has experienced a culture of fear at some point, either as the victim or the oppressor. Though you may not have labeled it a ‘culture of fear’ at the time, you knew what it felt like: micromanagement, fear of making a mistake, and doing just enough to get by without getting in trouble.” 

If any of this sounds familiar, it’s not too late to take action and make change. Here are several examples of how fear shows up and what you can do to address root problems. 


Fear of Accountability 

This kind of workplace culture thrives on passing work along. Problem-solving is only rewarded with more work, and employees likely suffer from burnout. Few people will step up or offer to help outside of their job scope, and a mindset of “If I don’t know, I’m not responsible” prevails. This approach leads to poor communication, high levels of stress, and long-term disconnection. 

The Solve: Reward & Support 

Start by acknowledging teams and individuals meeting their targets and taking accountability. To shift the culture, leadership should recognize and reward where projects are being run well and teams are collaborating.

 Streamlining will help resolve the issue as well. Speak with teams and individual employees to find out what they need, be it more team members, less complicated projects, or more communication within their departments. 

Once you find out what employees need, make an action plan to improve the areas they called out. Change can’t happen overnight, but proving that you’re serious about their needs will go a long way in building the trust that is currently lacking. 

Make sure to model healthy communication; if you expect employees to be open and expressive, leadership must do the same. Simplify objectives and KPIs, and make sure you have enough people working. Running a tight team will cost you in the long run when it comes to output and engagement. 


Fear of Punishment 

This kind of culture is what commonly comes to mind when discussing fear in the workplace. It’s a reactive, stunted environment where mistakes are punished, and people are singled out for random reasons. Gossip and bullying may be rampant, trust is usually low, and engagement has likely tanked. 

The Solve: Correct Constructively 

Start at the top! Your executive team should have a no-tolerance policy for bullying or misconduct. This is also an excellent time to re-evaluate the organization’s cultural values; do they still work for the organization’s needs? Are they being modeled and lived out every day? 

The next step is to implement corrective plans that are not punishments. Make it clear that professional development is for everyone at every level of the organization. Implementing the help of a consultant or coach outside of the organization can help rebuild trust and let employees express frustrations and difficulties in a productive environment. The right consultant will bring the right tools to your teams and help them reconnect and communicate more effectively. 


Fear of Innovation

This work environment is particularly insidious, because it might exist in an organization that looks positive and healthy on the surface. Lack of conflict is actually a sign that a company might be suffering from fear of innovation because no one is willing to go against the status quo. 

This comes from a repeated history of saying no and punishing people for mistakes. If a new initiative fails, the organization takes it hard instead of as a learning opportunity. Trying new methods outside of the norm is not supported, so a team might be using an inefficient or outdated system of operations with no way to progress. Nothing destroys a growth mindset faster than that. 

The Solve: Celebrate New Ideas 

Increasing transparency from the top down will help prove that a mindset shift is here to stay. Encourage leaders to be candid about experiments and the experiences that followed. Have them reframe mistakes as opportunities, and open up discussions across the organization when it comes to problem solving and ideas for improvement. 

A simple way to do this is to create an email anyone can contact, like ‘ideas@company.com’. Team members can then send their thoughts, big-picture thinking, or short-term improvement ideas to one centralized place. 

Another way to promote a growth mindset is to increase praise across the organization. Make a habit of calling out good work and good ideas; even if the outcome isn’t ideal, celebrate taking risks and initiative to try something new. 

Finally, review KPIs for individuals and make sure no one person is solely responsible for successful outcomes that are outside of their control. If individuals are entirely responsible for favorable results, they will likely succumb to stress and revert back to the safest options, even if they are less efficient or effective. 


Eliminating Fear in Your Organizational Culture  

Making the shift from a culture of fear to a healthy culture isn’t easy, but it is worth it for an organization’s long-term success. Create the kind of workplace where your team is safe to take risks, be vulnerable, and step up to do the best work possible. 

If you need help getting started, TTI can help.


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Jaime Faulkner