"We're both leaving the company." Her eyes welled up as she spoke the words to the young woman across the table, who clearly wasn't expecting this. I hadn't intended to eavesdrop, but while starting off my day at the local coffee shop, I couldn't help but be drawn into the drama unfolding at the table to my left. "I want nothing but to see this company grow and succeed, but I can no longer be a part of it." The teary-eyed woman went on to explain to her manager and friend how the CEO of the young startup was unapproachable, unpredictable, moody, and - at his worst - terrifying. She and her now-husband, who had met and fell in love while working for the startup, had decided to leave together. Apparently, the CEO intimidated not only this young couple, but many of the employees he led.
A certain amount of apprehension in the workplace can be considered healthy. Employees should have reasonable fear that if they do not perform their job duties, break rules, or disregard policies, etc., they might be disciplined or fired. But, this type of fear is a bit different. What we're talking about here is a culture of fear; an environment in which employees are terrified of making any slight misstep for fear of punishment or humiliation, where they may be afraid to ask questions or share their ideas. This is when fear becomes unhealthy, counterproductive, and can cause great employees to leave.
You (and your coworkers) walk on eggshells
Is the general vibe in the office uptight and nervous? Are employees fearful to point out issues, or to voice opinions and ideas? Worse, are they fearful of termination or layoffs? Employees learn from past actions, and if they've witnessed layoffs, demotions, restructuring, or firings without clear and due cause, the message sent is: This could happen to anyone, even you.
There are a lot of "yes people"
"Senior leaders don't want to surround themselves with a bunch of 'yes' people, they want to be challenged in their own thinking and get outside of their own bubbles," said Liz Nolley Tillman, author of "Great Work, Great Rewards" in an interview by CNN Business. Here, Tillman is referring to most leaders; good leaders. But then, there is another breed of leaders that simply hates to hear the answer "no." It makes them uncomfortable and insecure. Leaders must learn to handle dissent and rejection with grace in order for their employees to feel confident in voicing their opinions and disagreeing with the status quo when necessary. Many bad business decisions have been avoided by brave employees who weren't afraid to say, "that's a bad idea."
Non-essential rules and measurements are in place
Of course we need rules in the workplace; they maintain order. However, non-essential rules can be perceived by employees as oppressive and eventually insufferable. Often, workplace rules are put into action with good intentions and are the response to individual incidents. Rather than blanketing the issue with a new rule applicable to the entire employee population, address incidents on a one-to-one level. A good litmus test to determine whether a rule is non-essential can be: Is this rule increasing productivity and/or the bottom line? Does the issue at hand apply to the majority of employees or only a small subset?
You score low in the leadership area of employee surveys
Most fear-based work environments have been shaped by the attitudes and poor leadership styles of management. It's unlikely that fear is being driven by a rogue employee or two. Good management would nip that in the bud. Ineffective leadership is more likely to have set the undesirable tone for others to follow. Scores from the below questions found on our Employee Engagement and Satisfaction Survey will help you identify issues with leadership. If necessary, take a deeper dive into those issues with leadership by conducting a Leadership Survey.
1) The leaders of this organization care about their employees’ well being
2) My supervisor is open to hearing my opinion or feedback
3) I feel I can trust what my supervisor tells me
Additional survey statements that identify a culture of fear
How would your employees respond to the following statements? Scoring lower than your industry's average on any of these statements may be indicative of a culture of fear.
1) I feel I can express my honest opinions without fear of negative consequences
2) I believe my job is secure
3) I feel physically safe in my work environment
There's a big, unused PTO bank
Sure, there are employees who don't take as much time off as they are granted. This tends to happen more often in those team members who carry seniority and consequently, a surplus of PTO days. However, if a large portion of your workforce leaves PTO days on the table year after year, this could be an indication of an underlying issue. According to CNBC and Project: Time Off, by forfeiting over 200 million vacation days that cannot be rolled over, American workers gave up about $62.2 billion in lost benefits last year alone. According to a study by Glassdoor, the fear of falling behind is the number one reason people aren’t using their vacation time.
If you find that, unbeknownst to you, a culture of fear has developed within your organization, it's never too late to turn the ship around and make improvements, starting with leadership. Developing channels for feedback from your employees will help to pinpoint specific factors that are contributing to this unpleasant phenomenon.