8 Ways to Prevent a Fear-Based Work Culture

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No one works their best when they’re afraid.

A mountaineer won’t climb well with fear in his heart. An author won’t write a masterpiece if she’s afraid of how her audience might receive it. Employees won’t be superstars for their company if they’re scared of failing.

Employees in fear-based cultures are too busy extinguishing fires, rushing to meet deadlines, lashing out at one another, and impatiently slapping together solutions to challenges to possibly work effectively. Fear takes a negative toll on employees’ well-being and on the overall quality of work.

Cultures of impatience, egoism, urgency, and fear erode companies from the inside out. This article will provide eight actionable pieces of advice for avoiding a fear-based culture and promoting an effective one instead; one that enables employees to work, learn, grow, and interact healthily.

A culture built on trust and strong relationships, rather than fear, helps employees work passionately and to the best of their ability.

8 Methods to Keep Fear from Running Your Company’s Culture

1 — Encourage risk-taking and learning from failure.

A culture of failure is a learning culture.

It’s okay to fail – in fact, it’s encouraged, as long as failure is treated as an opportunity, rather than a death sentence.

Trial, error, adjustment, and consistency are the only ways to improve, therefore, employees should be made to feel comfortable taking risks and experimenting often.

And when (not if) they fail, encourage your people to own mistakes, learn from them, and move forward.

2 — Promote transparency and provide context.

When employees feel like they’re in the dark, they become anxious. When they’re anxious, their performance suffers.

To avoid this, be transparent. Provide context for everything you can.

When employees understand the big picture, they’re more likely to trust leadership and feel invested in the company’s success.

Some ways to promote transparency and provide context:

  • Be crystal clear about your company’s mission and objectives.
  • Explain the “why” behind decisions, both big and small.
  • Make sure everyone has access to the same information.
  • Ask employees questions and encourage them to do the same.

Employees can’t do their best work if they don’t understand how they fit into the entire framework. Share information openly and frequently. Help employees to see how their work truly plays a vital part.

3 — Help your employees learn and grow.

When employees feel stuck, their performance suffers. They become disengaged, apathetic, and resentful. And fear only further stifles growth.

Invest in your employees’ development to counter this. Create avenues for them to learn new skills so they can continue to grow in their careers.

stack of learning materials (books) on a desk with a laptop on top
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image courtesy of AltumCode on Unsplash

You can support employee development by:

  • Working with employees to set short-, medium-, and long-term goals.
  • Providing plenty of learning opportunities within their flow of work.
  • Encouraging employees to seek and work with mentors.
  • Letting employees choose a project to reignite their passion for work.

Your investment in your employees’ development shows that you care about their growth and enrichment. It also shows how important their ongoing learning is to the company and the culture you’re constructing.

4 — Make it safe for employees to speak up.

Employees in fear-based cultures resist pitching ideas or bringing concerns to the attention of superiors. This leads to a widespread lack of transparency and communication and a build-up of tension that can eventually explode.

To prevent this, nurture your environment to be one in which employees feel safe to speak up about their worries, ideas, criticisms, and questions. Make it easy for them to do so. This means no retribution for failure, no personal attacks, and no putting people on the defensive. Instead, have open dialogue and respect differing points of view.

Here are three ideas to help you establish healthy channels of interaction:

  • Create a list of rules for how employees should treat each other.
  • Set up plenty of channels for feedback and suggestions (see #5).
  • Encourage employees to commune with others in different roles and at different levels.
5 — Encourage open feedback and constructive criticism.

Cultures of fear either don’t support feedback at all, or they promote vague, nonspecific, or hurtful feedback. This leaves employees frustrated, confused, resentful, and reluctant to seek help again.

Instead, give feedback that’s clear, specific, and actionable. And make sure it flows in both directions; encourage employees to give feedback, too.

Tips for giving and receiving feedback:

  • Be clear and specific about what you’re trying to say.
  • Use “I” statements, rather than “you” statements.
  • Focus on the behavior (or idea), not the person.
  • Avoid making assumptions.

Feedback is essential for a culture to promote personal and professional growth, but it only works if it’s given openly, honestly, and constructively. Create a feedback-friendly environment where people not only feel comfortable giving and receiving it, but they start to crave it.

6 — Encourage healthy conflict.

Conflict isn’t always bad. In fact, healthy conflict can lead to better decision-making, deeper relationships, and increased creativity.

Grayscale image of two ibexes in conflict with each other
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image courtesy of Maxime Gilbert on Unsplash

To encourage healthy conflict, you need an environment in which employees are unafraid to speak up and challenge the status quo. Here are some suggestions for how to get started:

  • Demonstrate healthy disagreements for/with your employees.
  • Respect employees’ opinions, even if you don’t agree with them.
  • Value employees’ input and feedback.
  • Publicly acknowledge when a healthy conflict helps your company achieve a goal.

Healthy conflict is essential for a thriving culture. It’s how new ideas are born and how problems surface to be addressed. But it only works if the conflict is respectful and constructive. So, encourage employees to have open dialogue, debate points of view, and resolve conflicts peacefully.

7 — Promote work/life balance.

Fearful employees are susceptible to overworking and burnout, but also of laziness and avoidance.

In either case, mistakes, accidents, and diminishing mental and physical health are common symptoms of working in a fear-based culture.

To promote work/life balance, make sure employees have enough time to rest, recharge, and find momentum both inside and outside of work:

  • Encourage employees to take vacations and use sick days.
  • Urge them to make full use of flexible work arrangements.
  • Be considerate of the number of hours per week you require of them to be in meetings.

Health is paramount. Promote cultural policies and practices that support it.

8 — Model the behavior you want to see.

As the leader of your company, you set the tone for the culture. If you want to create a culture of trust, respect, transparency, learning, collaboration, and excellence, you need to model those behaviors yourself.

Some ways to exemplify the behavior you want to see:

  • Share information openly and frequently.
  • Vocalize your trust in your employees’ abilities.
  • Admit when you’re wrong and learn aloud from your mistakes.
  • Make time to really hear your employees.
  • Realize that you, too, are on a continuous learning journey.

Embody the culture you want to see, and your employees will follow suit.

Concluding Thoughts

By following these eight pieces of advice, you can avoid a fear-based culture and instead promote one that enables your employees to work effectively and healthily.

Cultures of fear are toxic and detrimental to companies and the employees therein. These steps will help you foster an environment that’s healthy, productive, and conducive to failing forwards – and that’s a good thing! As long as you’re learning from your failures, they’re not really failures at all. They’re opportunities for growth.

Did you find this article helpful? Share it with your network. And if you’re looking for more tips on creating a strong workplace culture, check out our blog. We write about this stuff all the time.

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