A Manager’s Guide to Dismantling a Fear-Based Company Culture from the Inside Out

UPDATED: June 7, 2023
PUBLISHED: August 20, 2021
A Manager’s Guide to Dismantling a Fear-Based Company Culture from the Inside Out

If you’re someone who works in a fear-based environment, you know the symptoms. Maybe your office has an anonymous suggestion box or 1-800 number for gathering feedback. You might witness high turnover, “in” and “out” groups, and even childish grudge-holding from senior leaders. The tense, anxious feeling in the air is almost palpable—it’s clear your colleagues aren’t happy but are afraid to speak up.

Unfortunately, most traditional cultures are based on fear, usually because of an autocratic leader. That’s likely why 46% of employees say they’re dissatisfied with their organizations’ experiences. In these situations, long-term employees adopt a survival mindset. There’s no freedom to be innovative or take thoughtful risks. Everyone learns to “swim beneath the surface”—a common phrase in fear-based cultures.

A Unique Opportunity for Middle Managers

As a middle manager, you’re in a great position to spot fear-based characteristics. You and your peers are the ones who experience fear firsthand. You’ve seen colleagues risk their promotions or even jobs by expressing dissent, and it’s made you wary of sharing your voice.

When you sense fear this acutely, it can be terrifying to consider taking a stand against what seems to be an imposing, unstoppable force. But if you can gather the courage, you can make lasting change in your company by disrupting its fear-based culture from the inside out.

One company I worked with, for example, had a fear-based culture perpetrated by its chairman. The head of human resources took a strong stance and started weekly meetings where the managers met to discuss the company’s culture and employee-related issues. The leaders recognized they might not be able to change or sway the chairman, but they still had the power to create a positive culture below them by being incredibly supportive. Together, they provided a buffer between the chairman’s autocratic bullying and the workforce.

Want to combat the intrinsic fear-based culture of your company? Start with these steps to work toward a more people-first approach. No matter how scary it might seem, speaking up is worth it. It can make a massive difference for other employees in your organization. Plus, there are more than 900,000 new jobs available—-so you can always go elsewhere. Recognize that your culture is fear-based, and respectfully work to fix that with these three steps:

1. Back up your concerns with data.

Leaders live and breathe data. They’re used to dissecting financial reports and making data-driven decisions in their day-to-day lives. Speaking their language and backing up your points will help you gain clout and trust with your company leaders. If the data doesn’t exist, you may need to gather it yourself either through a targeted survey or a third-party assessment—just be sure to get approval first. Then, support these findings with industry data. For instance, 47% of people looking for a new job say the culture made them want to leave, and employees who feel heard are 4.6 times more likely to feel empowered to perform their best.

Once you’ve done your homework, strategically plan to share your findings with leaders. Perhaps you can join their leadership team meeting as a guest presenter, add time to the calendar of an empathetic vice president, or check in with HR to see what they recommend. No matter how you approach your presentation, make sure to maintain a respectful tone in both your speech and any written analysis. Present the facts, let your research speak for itself, and give your leaders space to respond.

2. Encourage leaders to shift from a disciplinarian to a coaching mindset.

At the core of a fear-based culture is a reliance on disciplinary methods versus coaching and problem-solving. When you speak with your leadership team, encourage them to think outside the box on handling performance and behavior issues. If they’re receptive, help them identify new strategies.

Research alternatives to the current discipline policy your senior leaders are using, and then engage HR to find ways to implement the change. (This is usually easier said than done because HR tends to own the policy and has been conditioned to believe it mitigates risk.) Many companies use three coaching modalities: internal coaches, external coaches and leaders who have coaching skills. Executive coaching can produce a 788% return on investment as your senior leaders learn to give up their draconian policies for more individualized and solution-focused approaches.

3. Help leaders build trust with employees.

The trouble with a fear-based environment is that it becomes a vicious cycle. The more employees feel they must keep their thoughts and opinions to themselves, the less they trust their leaders. Managers have to find a way to build trust and safety within employees’ spheres of influence.

Encourage your leaders to get to know each member of the team personally. This will ideally be in the form of regular one-on-one meetings in which team members are encouraged to ask questions and air concerns. By listening and facilitating team members’ ideas for solutions to ongoing problems, managers can help employees feel heard and understand that their feedback is truly being considered. If managers have offices, they should try to maintain an open-door policy—both literally and figuratively—so employees know they can always stop in to chat or ask questions.

Transformative culture change doesn’t happen overnight, but it is possible. The key to dismantling a fear-based culture is to take a strategic approach to working with your leadership team. Once you help them understand your point of view using data, you can help coach them toward a more people-focused management style that builds trust, rapport, and engagement.

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Sue Bingham

Sue Bingham, founder and principal of HPWP Group, has been at the forefront of the positive business movement for 35 years. She’s driven to create high-performing workplaces by partnering with courageous leaders who value the contributions of team members. Bingham also wrote a bestselling Amazon book: Creating the High Performance Work Place: It’s Not Complicated to Develop a Culture of Commitment. She also contributed to From Hierarchy to High Performance,an international bestseller.