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Do You Want Your Employees to Speak Up?

Do You Want Your Employees to Speak Up?

Does everyone in your organisation speak up? You may want them to – but the chances are that because of our hierarchical cultures – they are very unlikely to.

Think about how FEAR drives human behaviour. In a culture of fear and the number one goal is pleasing the ‘boss’ – you are unlikely to find a culture of engaged, driven teams. A culture of FEAR moves quickly to destroy culture. Researchers at Harvard Business School and Penn State found that fear in the modern workplace has reached epidemic levels, dissuading employees from speaking up and voicing important issues related to the business.

Whether employees fear retaliation, punishment, humiliation, or being fired, the study revealed that this emotion quickly leads to dissatisfaction and lowers productivity levels. Once this happens, you’re not far from creating a domino effect that can torpedo creativity and lead to disengagement throughout the company. Fear is also the primary cause of much of the bad behaviour you see in companies, from office politics to poor communication. While a culture of fear may temporarily make people work harder to try to avoid undesired consequences, leading through fear will always backfire on you–particularly when it comes to retention. In other words, fear kills the company’s productivity engine. Check out laborlawcc.com/new-york-labor-law-posters-state-and-federal-combo.html to make sure you are compliant with Labor Law requirements.

A fear based culture is the opposite of an inclusive culture. In driving inclusive leadership – organisations are showing leaders how to support their employees in ‘speaking up’.

When a leadership team’s attention turns from “How can we do the right thing for our customers and employees?” to “How can we keep our stature, our jobs, and the status quo intact, at any cost?” then fear officially rules the roost.

Here are 8 Signs of a Fear-Based Workplace:

  1. Appearances are everything. When employees are preoccupied with staying in the office later in the evening than the boss does, fear is king. When people worry less about the quality of their work than about how they’re perceived by managers higher up the chain, you’ve got fear.


  1. Everyone one is talking about who’s rising and who’s falling. A preoccupation with status and political capital is a sure sign that stakeholders’ best interests have taken a back seat to me-first, fear-based behaviours.


  1. Distrust reigns. Would this be your knife in my back? When your employees have to stop and ask themselves, “Is it safe to tell Kirsten my idea?” you have a fear problem in your organisation. Workplaces where people steal one another’s intellectual capital are places where trust is subordinate to fear (if trust exists at all).


  1. Numbers rule. Sensible performance goals help people understand what’s important. An obsession with metrics, daily, weekly, and hourly, and a world view that says an employee is the sum of his numeric goals, are signs of a fear-based culture. Why? A healthy organisation builds performance goals into its leadership framework, but the metrics don’t equal the framework.


  1. RULES RULES RULES! Maybe the most stereotypical yet valid sign of a fear-based workplace is an over dependence on policies in place of common sense and valuing challenging the ‘way things have always been done.

Here are some tips for an inclusive leader who wants ALL of the team to engage and speak up:

  • Crash hierarchy – just because you are the ‘boss’ – doesn’t mean that you are the best person to represent the team in every meeting. What if you reimagined your team without titles and hierarchy – who would you send to that meeting?
  • As a senior leader you come equipped to instill fear in your teams through your title alone. Imbalanced power dynamics based on hierarchy can inspire fear in those who report to you, leading people to share information selectively, as through rose-colored glasses. When you only hear what people think you want to hear, you miss out on a lot of important noise. You’re screened from the truth, which is what any business really needs to thrive, improve, and reach its vision.
  • Constantly ask ‘IS THAT REALLY TRUE?’ Since fear keeps people from saying what they really think–turning them into people pleasers rather than problem solvers–it can result in the leadership team having a skewed view of what’s really happening in the business. By asking this question – you and the team are challenged to change the game. It encourages constructive disagreement – which is what leads to big bright ideas!
  • Trust should be your default rather than the exception. When you really trust your team, you don’t need as many rules. Reaching the point where that level of trust permeates the culture is important, because trust is a fear-buster that will result in employees feeling better about the company and its leadership team.
  • Communicate what’s going on to the WHOLE team. In a fear based culture – leaders hold on to information as part of their power base. This kind of behaviour actually demonstrates lack insecurity – and fear. Confident leaders are happy to share information – because they know that people perform better if they know the whole story and what’s really going on. Communication that is limited to the elite few (or your usual suspects) excludes the view point, ideas and potential of the vast number of your employees.
  1. Management frowns on too much collaboration.


  1. Leaders hold tight to ‘inside information’ – there is no 360 degree communication. Cultures that allow people to hoard what they know to consolidate their power are cultures where fear has smashed trust under its heel. Likewise, if employees learn about a company downsizing through the grapevine – rather than via a frank sit down with their managers and their teams, the culture is rubbish and your people are disengaged!


  1. He who praises the boss the most shines! When the people who get rewarded and promoted are the least-knowledgeable but the best at ‘playing the game’ – you have bottomed out on inclusion. Fear-based senior leaders surround themselves with yes-men and yes-women because it’s more pleasant to hear the “right” answer than the truth.



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