A culture of fear derives from an old-fashioned vision of leadership and power. CEOs need to be wary of the incremental impact of power and to avoid its negative impacts. Bob Iger, CEO of Disney, says that it’s all too easy to get used to everyone waiting to hear where the CEO
stands before they express their view, bring you new ideas, or even disagree. You need to work consciously and actively to fend off the corrosive effect of long-term power, to encourage debate and even dissent. This is true as much for CEOs as for leaders in other powerful positions, who may mirror behaviours they have long seen in those they report to.
Organisational fear has an impact on culture and ultimately success. Its presence is evidenced by behaviours in the business. If your people are fearful of sharing bad news, particularly if they have made a mistake, that is one sign. If they are reluctant to disagree with you publicly, that is another. If your team lacks diversity, you may find you are subject to groupthink, which is conducive to both a lack of innovation and a culture of fear. A key indicator is how people respond to feedback. Tough feedback can be hard to take and good leaders take it well and act on it. Bad leaders are combative and may be resentful when given tough feedback.
Fear-based cultures can be actively toxic. If bad behaviours in leadership are not addressed people will hide, cover up and do what they need to do to survive, not to thrive. Toxic behaviour can escalate and, if it is tolerated, will inspire more bad behaviour because it is seen as the best way to progress. Ultimately, this can destroy an organisation’s public image.
What gives a man, or a woman, the courage to step into the arena, aware of the risks and the consequences, yet to step in regardless? Courage comes not from the absence of fear, but from facing that fear, being fully aware of all the possible adverse consequences. Courage requires self-confidence, vulnerability, the ability to back yourself and to step up to the challenge, despite the risks.
Leaders like to think they empower their staff; that they are free to say whatever they want. More often those very employees don’t say what they think at all; indeed they are afraid of the consequences of saying what they think. Speaking up often takes courage and considerable self-confidence. A culture of fear will erode self-confidence fast, so if you see the symptoms in your organisation, that is the first thing you need to address.