15 Ways You Create a Culture of Fear as Leaders

Especially if you’ve read much of Simon Sinek’s work, you likely know that you want a culture of safety in your company, not one of fear.

A culture of fear is one where employees fear speaking up, disagreeing, giving feedback, admitting mistakes, asking for help, bringing up problems, sharing ideas, and taking risks because they fear retaliation, humiliation, retribution, being judged, being treated as stupid or worthless, hurting their chance at a promotion, or even losing their job.

When people live in fear, they don’t go above and beyond, innovate, and pursue excellence. Instead, the focus is not on making a mistake.

Your people will do the bare minimum and do what is safe so that they won’t get called out.

It’s hard to have a highly productive company with that kind of culture.

So, the question is, what do we do to create these kinds of cultures? Here are 15 ways way do that.  

1. You create “gotcha environments”

A gotcha environment is one where your focus as a leader is finding what people are doing wrong instead of focusing on supporting them.

When you walk around, you are about catching them making a mistake or doing something wrong so you can get them for it.

Employees start boss-watching and looking out for when you may come around. When you call them to your office, their immediate response is “What did I do wrong?” and the rest of the team is thinking “What did he/she do?”

You don’t want that.

Your mentality shouldn’t be one of catching people doing wrong. Your mentality should be one of “How can I help and support you?”

When you walk around, be about supporting, helping, and serving your team. Ask them, “How can I help/support you?” or “What do you need?”

Be genuine about it.

Your people should be happy seeing you walk by, not dread it.

2. Mistakes are punished

Now before we dive into this, it might be a good idea to clarify that there are different kinds of mistakes – there are mistake people make when pursuing new ideas, innovating, and learning on the job, and ones that happen when they give their best effort.

There are also mistakes that people do when people are being lazy or unethical. Your mentality still should be the same, but some of the actions you may take may be different.

That being said…

Here’s the thing about mistakes – everyone makes them. It’s part of learning. It’s part of growth.

If you are trying new ideas and innovating, there’s going to be a failure. That’s just part of it.

The idea of “punishing” mistakes is dumb because it keeps people from trying.

When you punish mistakes, people are just going to do what they know is safe. They will do what is easy, not pursue any new ideas or innovate or take risks, and just keep their head down.

Your mentality should be one of learning and support. Instead of punishing being your immediate response, you should first find out why the mistake happened – are they still learning? Did they not have time and resources? Are they experimenting with doing something new?

Then your response should be one of helping them learn from the mistake so they can do better in the future and supporting them in that.

As Ray Daleo said, “Create a culture in which it is okay to make mistakes and unacceptable not to learn from them.

“Create a culture in which it is okay to make mistakes and unacceptable not to learn from them." – Ray Danelo Share on X

3. The focus is on blame versus solutions

Culture of fear - The focus is on blame versus solutions

Too often the focus is on finding blame in organizations instead of focusing on solutions. This is often because of the “gotcha environments”, punishing mistakes mentality, and mentality of compliance.

Instead of “this mistake happened/problem popped up, what should we do to fix it?” the focus is finding a scapegoat or someone to put the blame on.

This is sad for multiple reasons. First, no one is taking ownership and responsibility.

As a leader, if your focus is on blame instead of ownership, you are teaching everyone in your organization (or at least those on your team) to do the same thing.

And blaming and or playing victim doesn’t help. It doesn’t solve the problem. It just creates an environment where everyone focuses on passing the blame so they don’t hurt their job or career instead of actually fixing the problem!

4. You judge decisions based on outcome versus the process used

We should judge decisions (even ours) based on the process used to make the decision, not the outcome.

The fact is, we rarely if ever know all the information when making a decision. If we used the best information we had and make a good decision, then we made a good decision, even if it turned out poorly.

The best decisions can turn out poorly sometimes, and the worst decisions can occasionally turn out well occasionally.

If someone comes to you have made a very risky investment, but it turned out well for them that time, does that mean you should invest all your money with them because their outcome was good – that time?

No, of course not.

When you judge employee decisions based only on the outcome, your employees will become hesitant to make decisions, pass the decision-making on to others so they can cast blame, or just focus on easy decisions and pathways.

This is not healthy for them or the organization.

5. There’s a mentality of compliance

A mentality of compliance often leads to gotcha environments as mentioned above.

A mentality of compliance is one where the focus is on rules and everyone better follow the rules.

It often comes from a lack of trust in employees. You feel like you must control them, so you create rules to control your employees and then watch for when they make mistakes so you can punish and get them.

You don’t get top-notch work with this kind of mentality.

Brene Brown in Dare to Lead said it this way:

“Leaders who work from compliance constantly feel disappointed and resentful, and their teams feel scrutinized. Compliance leadership also kills trust, and, ironically, it can increase people’s tendency to test what they can get away with.”

6. Leaders threaten or make intentional statements to create fear or they shame people in order to “motivate”

Leaders threaten or make intentional statements

Sometimes leaders think fear is the best motivator, so they threaten or use scare tactics to try to get the behavior they want.

As Adrian Gostick and Chester Elton said in their book Leading with Gratitude, these kinds of leaders might say things like “There’s a long list of people waiting for your job” or “I don’t know if I can protect you”.

They may also try to shame people to “encourage” the behaviors they want.

They think if they scare them enough, then they will comply and do the work the way they want.

However, it’s actually counterproductive and causes harm instead of helping, especially long-term.

7. Putting profit or results over people

When you put profits over people and treat people as just expenses to be cut at a whim’s notice, they will know, and that will hurt loyalty.

If you treat people as cogs in a machine that can easily be replaced, they aren’t going to feel safe.

Yes, you must have profit for the business to succeed, but the best way to build a highly productive and profitable business is to put people first.

As Simon Sinek said, “Customers will never love a company, unless its employees love it first.

It’s when you have people who feel safe, cared for, heard, who love their job, and are loyal, that’s when you get the most productivity and profit.

When you treat them as cogs are expenses, don’t expect that.  

"Customers will never love a company unless its employees love it first." – Simon Sinek Share on X

Listen to Podcast: Episode 10: Make It Safe

8. You “shoot the messenger” or respond negatively when employees request help

Leaders sometimes lie to themselves and others by saying they ask for and want feedback. And when employees don’t give it, they blame the employees.

But the problem is, they say that with their words, but they say something else with their actions (or the way they say their words).

If anytime someone asks for help, you show annoyance, people aren’t going to ask for help.

If anytime someone brings up a problem, you get angry and go ballistic for bringing up a problem, people aren’t going to bring up problems with you.

If you never listen to people’s input or don’t ask it in a true manner (“We should go this way, right?” vs. “What are your thoughts on which direction to go?”), people will stop giving input.

If people aren’t giving you feedback or bringing up problems, even if you said you “welcome” it, the problem is not them, it’s you.

9. You kill off disagreement

Sometimes leaders think that harmony and consensus is the ideal goal of meetings and decisions.

That’s false.

You want disagreement and dissent. You want people to argue ideas so that you can get the best idea and decision.

Sometimes it also happens because the leader is stuck on their idea and pushes away any other ideas or disagreement toward it.

For whatever reason, when you stifle disagreement, you create an environment where people are fake, fear speaking up, and hide information. They will smile and nod in the meeting but then talk negatively about it in a later “meeting”.

Listen to Podcast: Episode 11: Why You Don’t Want Consensus

10. You (or allow others to) wet blanket ideas

Sharing ideas and input can be hard for some people in general at times. People fear being judged or their idea sounding silly.

When you or you allow others to wet blanket ideas, call them dumb, say things like “Oh that will never happen”, automatically dismissing it without any consideration, people will fear sharing ideas.

11. Allow toxic and negative behaviors (or embrace them yourself)

When you or other team members display toxic or negative behaviors (including bullying, judgmental attitudes, verbal attacks, excessive competition, passive-aggressive behaviors, manipulation, undermining, gossiping, and so on), and it’s allowed, that’s not healthy.

It’s demotivating and will likely cause your best people to leave (not to mention possible lawsuits).  

Toxic behaviors should never be tolerated, no matter who is exhibiting those behaviors.

The behaviors are infectious, and they can quickly make the whole organization sick.

12. Communication is one-way with a “just do your job” mentality

Communication is one-way with a “just do your job” mentality

Too often, communication is only one way – down.

Those in charge tell those below them what to do, and they never listen when people try to communicate. People feel unheard and uncared for, become disengaged, and they may start seeing those above them as “them”. 

There may also be a “just do your job” mentality. Don’t speak up, don’t complain, just do what you are told.

You don’t want that. That’s unhealthy. People are unmotivated, and when you don’t listen, you miss out on so much information that can help your organization be better.

13. Information is used as a tool of power

Sometimes information is used as a tool of power instead of being shared. Or it’s kept hidden because of a lack of trust.

Either way, when information isn’t freely shared by leadership, employees trust their leadership less. They may feel leadership is hiding something from them.

And when you don’t share, people don’t have all the information they need. How can they make the best decisions without all the information?

How can they do the best job they can if they don’t have all the information to do the best job?

But it’s not just leaders, it can be coworkers and departments as well. When their focus is on themselves, their career, or playing politics, they may withhold information for their personal benefit instead of focusing on the good of the company and the team as a whole.

14. There is no unifying mission or goal (or at least it’s not modeled)

When you have a unifying mission and goal, everyone is working together for the accomplishment of that goal.

There isn’t you versus me, it’s us.

The problem in many organizations, however, is that the mission is just words. It’s not lived by or modeled by.

There’s no unifying goal that brings everyone together.

Instead of everyone working together, everyone is working in their own self-interest – this person against that person, this department vs. that department. Each person or department thinks their goal or idea is more important than others.

Also Read: The Definitive Guide to Mission Statements

15. You have a perfectionist mentality

When you have a perfectionist mentality, people feel they can never please you. It slows them down, and they focus more on avoiding mistakes than pursuing excellence. It creates resentment and people find you impossible to please.

If you do any of these, stop

If you find yourself doing any of these behaviors, the first and best step is to stop! Then work to rectify it.

You may need to apologize and then let your people know what steps you are taking to fix it.

They may not trust you at first, but, over time, when you show you are serious by your actions, you can change your culture for the better.

Now to you: Did I miss any of the causes? Let me know in the comments below.

And, if you need help with this, feel free to connect with us!

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