Five Signs Your Organization Is Crippled By A Culture Of Fear

by · May 16, 20143 comments

Your company has a culture. This isn’t news.  Some cultures express themselves consciously, written on signs plastered to hallways or found on your website. Others subconsciously, hidden away in the minds and work processes of its employees; an unofficial, unspoken, culture that permeates an organization.

SME Digital (the agency arm of Social Media Explorer), prides itself on its “Work from Anywhere” culture. Our team is free to work from anywhere across the globe (provided they can find a strong internet connection and be available for client calls). I’m currently writing this post from a rental in Victoria, Canada, where I’ve been staying for the past couple weeks. Not going to lie, it’s a pretty wonderful experience and adds, for me, a unique level of value to the company. And that value-add is exactly why we have “Work from Anywhere” as part of our culture.

Culture of FearStrong, positive organizational cultures bring with them a host of added benefits. They empower teams to produce exceptional work; they can reduce turnover rates and can even supplement lower salaries/bonus structures. Likewise, a negative company culture can flat out destroy a company. It can lead to low productivity levels, petty theft, negligence, apathy and other destructive behaviors or actions.

Working in an agency environment, I have the privilege of partnering with some fantastic companies. Most of which have positive company cultures and a few others negative cultures. These negative cultures aren’t obvious on day 1. It’s not like any of these companies had a poster in their break room that said, “Only work as hard as you need to to not get fired.” Instead, the negative culture of a company would manifest itself through the everyday actions and conversations of team members, delayed responses, cancelled phone calls, missed project deadlines. Of these negative cultures, the most common and destructive we experienced is what I (and I’m sure others) refer to as a Culture of Fear.

A Culture of Fear is a negative organization culture where a perpetual, base level of fear (fear of being fired, being reprimanded, being ridiculed) runs from the top-down throughout an organization and has a negative impact on production and the employee morale. Cultures of Fear cripple organizations. Once this fear takes root, it manifests itself in a variety of negative ways. Some of the most common symptoms of this culture include: the halting of innovation (risk), the delay of projects as no one can feel confident in making decisions and an increase in employee apathy.

So how can you tell if you’re operating in a Culture of Fear?

Take a second to answer the below questions. Think about your responses and ask yourself if this describes your working environment.

  • Are you, or your team members, terrified about trying out a new tactic or initiative?
  • Do you feel uncomfortable if pushed to make a decision on your own?
  • Do you find yourself wondering how to “spin” something to a senior team member or supervisor?
  • Are you constantly concerned about the security of your job?
  • Is your supervisor concerned about the security of their job?

If your answer to the above questions is yes, and the frequency associated with these issues is daily or weekly, your organization might be infected by a Culture of Fear.

How do we stop being afraid?

So, how do you transform you company culture and shake off this crippling fear? It starts from the top-down. For most companies, culture is an extension of the values and actions of the leadership team. The CEO needs to not be afraid of the board, the VP’s need to not be afraid of the CEO, and so on from there. If you’re an entry or mid-level employee, you probably won’t be able to change the organization; but you can start by changing your personal environment. Start by having an honest conversation with your supervisor or team lead. If that thought terrifies you, ask yourself why. Are you afraid of looking weak? Are you afraid of being ridiculed? Fired? Take a moment to sit and explore these feelings. Are they warranted?

You will never do your best work if you’re constantly looking over your shoulder. If there’s no way to shake off that fear, start looking for another job. Extricate yourself from the situation and start sleeping through the night again.

Company culture has a direct impact on a company’s ability to be successful. Strong, successful companies have strong, positive cultures. This isn’t a coincidence. If you’re not happy with the level of success in your company or team, take a good look at the culture. Chances are you’ll find some answers there.

Do you work in a Culture of Fear? If so, share your experience in the comments below.

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About Jason Spooner

Jason Spooner

Jason Spooner is the Director of Client Services for SME Digital, the digital marketing extension of Social Media Explorer. During his career as a digital strategist, Jason has worked with a variety of large and small companies including: NAPA AUTO PARTS, NASCAR, Kraft, Wal-Mart and Wrangler. His passion: creating powerful digital marketing strategies that drive results. Oh, and he does improv comedy. Follow his antics @jaspooner.

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Comments on Social Media Explorer are open to anyone. However, I will remove any comment that is disrespectful and not in the spirit of intelligent discourse. You are welcome to leave links to content relevant to the conversation, but I reserve the right to remove it if I don't see the relevancy. Be nice, have fun. Fair?

  • http://twitter.com/emerigent Emeri Gent [Em]

    It is a chicken and egg situation.

    If one works within a culture of fear, then there is fear to acknowledge that. When one is working in a culture of courage, one can see the advantage that accrues, for it becomes a competitive strength to know that the competition lacks ideas, because they lack spirit.

    In this chicken and egg situation, it isn’t about who or what came first, but whether the organization culture is a chicken, or whether it is an egg – which in this case becomes a metaphor for growth, as well as birth.

    [Em]

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