The definition of Fear may include when your personal security or pain is threatened, you are concern about a future specific unpleasant event, or you have a perceived loss of safety. How many situations do people face at work which fall into this definition? Fear is a powerful emotional response that for many of us is automatic. We fall into a fight or flight situation where we make a quick choice on how to deal with that emotional response.
"About 40 million Americans suffer from anxiety disorders, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. A Harvard Medical School study estimated the annual cost to the U.S. economy in 1999 at roughly $42 billion." Source: USA Today Fear Article. That is roughly 15% of the U.S. population.
If this is so, then why do so many leaders manage by fear? When I talk about managing by fear, I am not talking about the boss who screams at, sexually harasses, or physically intimidates employees. This is obvious misbehavior that would not be tolerated in most companies. If we think about the average company HR policies, the fear becomes obvious. Hourly employees risk "disciplinary action" if they clock in early at the start of the shift or late at the end of the shift. This is a common one. There are good reasons why companies set policies on how employees track their time, but "disciplinary action?" Disciplinary action is the common fear based term used in organizations. It basically means, "If we want to fire you, we will find a way regardless of what you do". When I think of the term, I think of Mr Shultz from elementary school and his three foot long paddle with holes drilled in it. If you stepped out of line, you may get the invisible chair or the paddle for your "disciplinary action".
One of the cornerstones of a continuous improvement culture is a non-blaming culture. This is where legitimate mistakes are forgiven, people are encouraged to report mistakes (and asked to fix them), and problems are solved rather than hidden. This concept can never be implemented in a fear based management company. I have told stories many times about mistakes that I made early in my career. The way that my boss and his boss reacted to my mistakes probably laid the foundation for my career since my first job out of college. The one story I tell is about when I was 22 years old and made a $250,000 mistake. Then, I owned up to my mistake and was then given the chance to fix it. The reaction of the VP of Engineering and the CEO to this mistake was that they had made that $250,000 investment in me, so it was worthwhile. I was a fiercely loyal and energetic employee that worked tirelessly for the success of the company. When I left to be closer geographically to family and friends, the same CEO threw a party for me and thanked me for all of the hard work. If he had ran a fear-based company, the 5 years of success that I was involved with would not have been possible.
So what else do managers do that drives fear in employees? I found an article on NBCNews.com 10 Signs of a Fear Based Workplace. I paraphrased it and added to it in the list below. I like the way that this was laid out. It tells us some not so obvious signs of a fear based workplace. The sad thing is that many managers intentionally do things that causes these symptoms of fear in the workplace.
- Worry about Appearances
- Employees worry about staying later than the boss
- Quality of work is less important than perception of work.
- Employees worry about how to "play the game" to get things done.
- Backstabbers succeed
- Meeting the numbers is more important than business success
- Other traits beyond performance metrics are ignored
- The employee handbook is too much to remember
- Policies and procedures read like legal documents and are impossible to follow completely
- Rules seem more like a means to fire someone than to control a process
- Only a few people know what is going on
- Key processes are not shared
- Duties are segregated so only a few see the whole picture
- Questions to management are answered with clarity
- Newsletters or emails to staff are filled with meaningless information or even worse, partial information that doesn't
- Yes-men and yes-women are promoted rather than more qualified leaders
- Focus is on chain of command rather than doing the right thing
- Shows like "Office Space" or "The Office" seem eerily like your average day.
- Senior leaders make virtually all decisions in secret,
- Senior leaders dole out information in unhelpful drips
- Senior leaders avoid delegation of responsibility and have to be involved in all decisions
- Employees should be "glad to have a job"