Fear Cultures: Do Scared People Innovate?

What happens to engagement and innovation when you’re on a zero hour contract, when your movements are tracked and someone’s measuring the authenticity of your smile?

According to our recent research, one third of people say a fear culture poses a leadership challenge in their organisation….and perhaps the other two thirds are too scared to admit it!

With trust playing a critical role in the innovation process, reducing fear and managing the risks involved in being creative is – or at least should be - a top priority for business leaders.

Hierarchical, fear-based cultures are paralysing organisations. These types of cultures might sound antiquated, or inherited, but, surprisingly, it is often new digital-age companies that have quickly moved from fast-paced high-risk organisations to ones where people are watching their backs and are fearful for their job security. Often this shift change is a reaction to rapid organisational growth. A failure to keep in touch with original values and culture coincides with negative pressure to perform as markets mature and the gold rush is over.

The current economic climate is also a significant influence. It’s no surprise that when times get tough, there is a tendency to play it safe, with people hunkering down, scared for their reputation and livelihood. Yet the brave new world is for companies that truly buy into the 'fail fast, iterate quickly' approach. They celebrate and learn from mistakes, seeing failure as a bonus - a way of perfecting an approach and de-bugging future products, systems or services. And it’s not all about creating high profile, big industry or product lead changes. An innovative organisation encourages every individual to be constantly looking to implement value-creating ideas that fall within their sphere of control, creating a culture of experimentation where people aren’t scared of every tiny repercussion.

At Impact we come across many clients and participants who have ideas that would revolutionise their business – were it not for the fact that they are simply too scared to change the status quo or put their head above the parapet and experiment with new things. It seems to be common practice for senior leaders to speak openly about encouraging innovation and supporting people who make mistakes, yet when it comes to their behaviours and actions there is all too often a mismatch. Beholden to their shareholders and markets, these leaders inadvertently create a 'top down fear culture'.

An inspired leader, by contrast, makes it their job to role model positive ways of supporting risk takers, experimenters and people with simple new ideas. How refreshing would it be for your manager to say in your performance review 'I'm expecting you to make mistakes 30% of the time, let's find the problems as soon as possible and fix them, let's push the boat out and test what's possible, I trust you to do your best'. It would certainly make a change from micro-management, which of course is often the product of a further layer of micro-management higher up…quickly resulting in an embedded fear culture.

Moving towards a culture built on trust rather than one driven by fear is no easy task. It is a brave move indeed to pro-actively challenge existing behaviours and ways of thinking, whatever the level of your role. Gaining support to address a top-down fear-driven culture can be particularly difficult when it is well-masked and business seems to run successfully, or at least sufficiently, on auto-pilot.

An organization that relies on fear, however, will eventually struggle to sustain itself. The war for talent will be won by those organisations that provide a trusting, creative culture in which each person brightly blooms. Competitive edge will be gained by those companies whose people are free to experiment, fail, improve and succeed. And market share will be won by those who adopt a collaborative approach to doing business, exuding confidence and trust as they stride forward to co-create the best solutions and services.

Top tips for creating a Brave New Workplace

  • Think about your recruitment policy - do you go for the safe bet who will comply to all the systems and processes and management control that you have built up to minimise mistakes? What would happen if you went for rebels? The positive deviants, the rule breakers, the mavericks?
  • Encourage challenging conversations. Don’t avoid disagreement – challenging conversations can lead to progress.
  • Develop leaders who flex and respond appropriately to rapidly unfolding situations, whilst continually retaining a clear vision against which judgements can be made.
  • Never lose sight of your organisational values and culture
  • Encourage delegation and minimise micro-management
  • Be transparent – share information readily and involve your people in making the decisions that affect them
  • Don’t get hung up on metrics and policies. Use your common sense and don’t introduce endless rules and measurements that get in the way of independent, creative thinking.

What's your experience?

Please use the comments section below to let us know your thoughts. What do you think are the tell tale signs of a fear culture in an organisation? Have you got any challenges or best practice you could share? We look forward to hearing your thoughts.