Updated: Mar 25, 2020
If you’ve been following the blog, you know by now that I am an avid sports fan. I played on a very successful football team in high school. Our coaches, while fantastic, instilled a culture of winning that leveraged fear as a powerful motivator—fear of failure, fear of letting the team down, fear of public humiliation, and fear of running gassers until we dropped after a bad game or practice. This fear created discipline in me and my teammates. We worked hard to execute without mistakes, which were inevitable. We could try to blame circumstances or others after practice or a game, but Saturday film sessions always revealed the truth.
In my work with kids on the field and my colleagues at the office, I’ve come to recognize fear and blame, fear’s outcome, as culture killers. Regardless of the source, fear creates a very real, observable response—fight or flight.
In the office, the fight response manifests in defensive behaviors, protecting interests at the expense of being bold or collaborating to support each other. Similarly, the flight response appears when colleagues refuse to speak up, avoid drawing attention, or decline to take risks or make mistakes. Fear and blame stifle creativity, innovation, productivity, and collaboration and stymy authentic leadership and growth. A culture of fear tends to destroy organizations and can have devastating impacts on employees. In extreme cases, it may even contribute to the unintended consequence of unethical behaviors and/or cover ups such as we’ve seen play out recently at Wells Fargo and Uber, as well as in Hollywood.
As a leader, I encourage you to consider your organization’s culture and the prevalence of fear within it by considering the following questions:
Are people willing to approach you with problems or questions?
Do your staff take responsibility when mistakes happen?
Does your staff show a willingness to be bold or make mistakes in support of innovation?
While you don’t have the luxury of post-game film, you are in a position to resolve these issues by bringing them to the forefront. Talk with your staff. Find out if and how you contribute to a culture of fear and blame. Have conversations individually and collectively as a team. These conversations are hard and they take time, but they have to happen to overcome a toxic culture. Fear generally comes from the top. You have to make sure people feel they can bring issues to you, knowing that they won’t be punished or humiliated.
Build a culture that learns from mistakes rather than hides them. Build a culture that speaks the truth rather than admonishing it. Honor creativity, promote collaboration, encourage calculated risks, and CEEK…a Better Way®.
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