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The Fear Based Workplace

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The Fear Based Workplace

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The following is an edited excerpt from the new book, The Evolved Executive, by Heather Hanson Wickman, Ph.D.

To show how fear exists within the workplace, think back to the last time you were having a lively conversation with your colleagues when a boss entered the room.

What happened?

Most likely, the conversation either shifted or the room fell silent because you and your colleagues were worried that what was said might be used against you.

In most organizations, fear is often a quiet, hidden illness that pervades the workplace with toxicity. Fear is as deadly to organizations as cancer is to the human body.

Whereas fear used to be thought of as a sign managers were running a tight, well-oiled machine where all employees knew their place, today we know that fear creates a toxic environment that negatively affects job performance and the organization overall.

That’s because fear in the workplace runs both ways:

  • Employees fear management, afraid to say or do anything apart from the party line for fear they’ll lose their job.
  • Managers themselves are in a state of fear, keeping employees in line with harsh and unnecessary rules, policies, and punishments.

As you can see, fear creates behaviors that hinder the individual productivity of both employees and managers, which in turn eats away at the entire organization.

Is Your Workplace Fear-Based?

If you’re wondering whether your workplace has succumbed to fearful thinking, here are the top nine signs that you’re operating in a fear-based workplace:

  1. Truth: People are afraid to tell the truth.
  2. Gossip: The rumor mill is often more credible than official communications.
  3. Public Humiliation: Managers publicly discredit and shame employees in front of their peers to send a message to the larger group and improve motivation.
  4. Blame: There is always someone to blame.
  5. “Yes” Bosses: People say yes to their bosses because they know that’s what gets rewarded, even if it’s not what’s good for the business.
  6. Appearances: People become more concerned with how something looks than its results. For example, they might say, “I can’t leave until my boss leaves,” regardless of the work they actually have to do.
  7. On or Off the Island: People constantly talk about who is “in” and who is “out” at the moment. It’s an unhealthy preoccupation with status and political capital.
  8. Policy Proliferation: Policy lists grow to outweigh common sense.
  9. Secrecy: Information is hoarded for to maintain power and control.

The Unintended Consequence of Workplace Fear

In addition to a fear-based workplace, we have a major crisis of engagement.

If you look at recent statistics, the reality is grim:

  • 13% of employees are actually engaged at work
  • 63% are not engaged
  • 24% percent are actively disengaged and looking for ways out

When people aren’t engaged, they aren’t as productive. They’re also more likely to engage in absenteeism, which is becoming a big problem for many organizations.

A 2005 study from the US Department of Labor estimated that 3% of an employer’s workforce is absent on a given day. That might not seem significant, but paid absences cost between 20.9 percent and 22.1 percent of total payroll.

Absenteeism is often misunderstood. It’s primarily assessed as a team-level cost or a payroll expense, but that’s not the whole story. Sickness and depression happen much more often in difficult work environments, leading to more absenteeism.

In a 2000 study by the Bureau of Labor, it was found that heavy workload has no effect on depression; it’s the work environment itself and the feeling of being treated unfairly by the management that has the greatest effects on employees’ moods.

In other words, fear is a contributing factor to absenteeism, which costs companies millions of dollars collectively each year. You can argue that having an open and loving workplace culture doesn’t translate to the bottom line, but you’d be wrong.

It’s time to stop chasing management strategies that rely on fear as a motivator.

Instead, let’s forge ahead with love-based beliefs and practices that will lead to the creation of soulful businesses that are good for all those it touches. This evolutionary path is not easy, but the outcome is desperately needed in the world today.

Heather Hanson Wickman, PhD, specializes in organizational change and in evolved executive coaching and has coached executives and organizations worldwide in evolved business practices, transformative awareness, and servant leadership.