How to Eradicate Fear from Your Company Culture

BY Kathy Crosett
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As Harvey Weinstein learned in the past couple of weeks, establishing a culture of fear in an organization will eventually result in a huge loss: your own. If your employees are afraid to speak up, if they worry about losing their jobs because they dare to share their honest opinions, they will run for the exit. This outcome is not what you want after you’ve spent time and money finding good people and convincing them to work for you. Here’s how to check on whether you’ve got a culture of fear and what you can do to fix it, based on a recent column penned by Louis Efron for Forbes.

If you notice a high turnover rate in a specific department, it’s worth conducting exit interviews to get to the root of the problem. These interviews could be held offsite to help the departing employee feel more comfortable as you try to determine if there’s an issue with the manager in the department. Efron also reminds leaders not to rely on glowing employee survey results. When the answers to your survey questions seem over-​the-​top positive, ask yourself if the results seem too good to be true. Your team members may be too afraid to be candid.

If you determine there’s trouble in your organization, start fixing it immediately. It’s not enough to ask people to come directly to you with problems. Once a culture of fear is in place, you’ll need to demonstrate that employees will be safe when they speak up. Encourage team members to speak up, even about the smallest issues. After the first brave person risks vocalizing his concerns, praise him and reward him to show that you mean what you say.

The fear culture can be a little harder to detect if it’s embedded in a department run by one of your senior leaders. In some organizations, certain employees consider themselves untouchable. She may be a longstanding personal friend of yours. He may be the rainmaker who also brings in the biggest clients with cash before the year ends. In any case, team members either suspect or know that some managers can get away with anything. Maybe they come in late, leave early, take credit for other peoples’ work, berate employees, and generally let it be known that anyone who crosses them won’t last long. In that environment, it’s easy to see why employees hesitate to speak up. It's so much easier to leave at the first opportunity.

To address this situation, make it clear that nobody is ‘above’ the culture of openness and trust that you want in your company. As hard as it may be, you need to shut down the ‘untouchable’ show immediately and in a very public way. Start by correcting the behavior of the ‘untouchable’ and insist that she follow the same work rules as everyone else. If her behavior has been way out of bounds, consider putting her on an unpaid leave of absence or enroll her in offsite training to help her see how her behavior has been impacting the organization.

Once your employees see you following up your words with deliberate actions, your culture of fear will evolve to become more open and trusting.