Organizational Intelligence: Confronting a Fear-based Working Environment


Employed as a leadership coach for various organizations over the past two years I encountered many working environments; some great, some good, and unfortunately, some not so good. The most demoralizing one is the fear-based working environment. You know that place of employment, where there’s little to no motivation to passionately pursue and expand organizational goals. The problem isn’t the employee but leadership’s inability to foster respect and build trust. In a fear based one working environment, the leader (manager or owner) controls with fear, creating negative vides in the workplace. This type of environment is challenging to say the least. In an economy like ours (December 2009), it is much more difficult for any employee to leave their job for a better work setting, so they stick around hoping for any semblance of change. Like the movie, The Matrix, it’s like being caught in a never ending simulated reality; once you’re in it, you can’t leave. If you do leave, you have to get at the end of line, and wait for weeks, even months to be called for an interview. So what‘s an employee to do? The ideas presented in this blog post will help you navigate through this kind of working environment.

In a fear based working environment employees’ walk on eggshells wondering when the leader will show up to reprimand someone publically. I personally witnessed this scenario first hand many times. I remember a situation where employees were doing their jobs when suddenly the owner appears, standing quietly in a corner unannounced, watching to see if anyone says or does something slightly out of line. As soon as employees’ became aware of this person’s presence the atmosphere changed, giving each other “the look”, as if, “Be aware, she’s here!” As the owner walked around, the employees became quiet, perhaps hoping she would not choose any of them to pick on.

On other occasions, procedures or systems were changed simply by the owner’s whim or because a client-customer made passing comment or mild complaint. Instead of keeping or making a slight adjustment to a working system, a whole new system was devised and implemented. And most critical of all, reprimands were too often made in the open or in meetings, not in a private office.

Liz Ryan, author of Ten Signs of a Fear Based Workplace notes:

Fear shuts down our ability to think creatively, collaborate, and bring passion to the job. When getting through the day requires a focus on keeping one’s head down, taking no risks, and sucking up to anyone in management, your organization’s soul has left the picture.”

A fear-based working environment is difficult to change, since the owner/leader is set in his or her ways. Insecure leaders who think critically of others, rather than optimistically breed fear. Weak employees, who fear confronting the obvious elephant in the room, would rather put up with it, keeping the status quo and their jobs. A leader creating this type of environment is usually caught in trap; to change would mean he or she would have to admit they have been managing wrongly, and would need to change their ways. So the struggle to achieve excellent working cultures stalls organizational effectiveness, even quenching the human spirit.

How does one confront such a leader? The best way to do this is through group confrontation, where several respected, tenured and highly qualified employees approach the leader in private with a short list of observations. What is a leader to do, fire this elite group? If a leader has any sense he or she should receive this honest feedback to gain respect required to lead effectively, then create the changes needed to transform themselves and their working environments.

What are other suggestions required to turn this type of working environment around? 

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