This article was originally published on LinkedIn.


Hashtag culture of fear…. Hashtag culture of fear

I must have repeated that phrase a dozen times while perched on a bar stool during happy hour as my childhood friend, Lindsay, shared her workplace woes. There were many. She’d stuck with the firm despite the challenging office environment in anticipation of a leadership transition. When the changeover finally occurred last spring, she was relieved to hear the new managing director promise in front of the entire company that the old ways would no longer be tolerated.

Sadly, for Lindsay and her co-workers, habits are hard to break and the MD’s speech did nothing to eradicate the despicable behavior patterns. Lindsay and her co-worked took to venting.

Their outrageous tales from the past were followed in quick succession by more recent, but equally disturbing, accounts of management’s bad behavior. After each story, I said “hashtag culture of fear” and shook my head. After each story, Lindsay took a sip of her gin and tonic with cucumber and then launched into the next example that somehow managed to be more alarming than the last one.

The culture seemed permanently stuck in fear-mode, despite good people like Lindsay who wanted to break free from the terror.

Toxic Workplaces Harm Employees

Cultures with pervasive fear are of the most toxic variety. That’s because very few in management need to be infected for the resulting negativity to spread to everyone it touches. Employees soon find themselves reacting to unreasonable demands, cowering from the fall-out of problems, and enduring endless abuses and indignities.

The toxicity has detrimental consequences for everyone. Previously healthy, thriving individuals might find themselves experiencing dramatic weight loss or weight gain, ulcers, heart conditions, and mystery stress-induced ailments.

As a result, employees develop survival tactic including:

  • Responding to unimportant calls and messages outside business hours
  • Inviting everyone to every meeting every time
  • Copying everyone on every email message
  • Overusing “reply to all”
  • Kicking up decisions to the next level of management
  • Refusing to provide constructive push-back on management decisions

Each of these habits contributes to the problem. Added to the never-ending series of emergencies, the threats of retribution, and the anxiety over trivial details, the result is a very distressing workplace.

Toxic Workplaces Harm Businesses

It is not just individuals who suffer. The business as a whole is hurt because creative problem-solving, advancements, and productivity are replaced by this survival mode. Of course disengagement is also an issue, but it is perhaps the least of the business’ difficulties.

When “cover your a*#” strategies take precedence over doing the right thing, the culture has disintegrated to one of fear. Sadly, once fear takes hold, there is no room for anything else.

A culture of innovation is impossible because invention requires a healthy tolerance for risk, which is not at all compatible with a culture of fear.

A culture of customer care is impossible because employees must be truly empowered to do right by their customers without interference by a fearful and bureaucratic chain of command.

A purpose-driven organization is impossible because initiative should be fueled by deep-seeded personal motivations, not a desire to comply with the whims of management.

A values-driven organization is impossible because the collective higher ideals are mismatched with the leaders’ fear-driven objectives.

A culture of excellence is impossible because quality comes from a place of pride and commitment, both of which suffer under this tyrannical management style.

Safety is a foundation of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. In a culture where yelling, cursing, and disrespect flow from the top, every worker finds himself in harm’s way. Without a sense of security, aspirational cultures like innovation and excellence are unattainable.

I saw it in Lindsay; she was tired and defeated. The negative culture is forcing her to exchange job satisfaction for job survival. Her work and well-being are suffering. At some point, she has to make a decision: let the culture get the best of her or cut her losses. Any organization that treats good employees like Lindsay as disposable stands to lose the most.

No one should be in a soul-sucking job with an oppressive culture, but it’s all too common. What other bad behaviors are indicative of a culture of fear? Share them in the comments or tweet them to @connectedstrat with #cultureoffear.