What happens to engagement when you’re on a zero hour contract? How innovative are you when under surveillance? According to our recent research, one third of people say that a fear culture poses a leadership challenge in their organisation (and the other two thirds might just be too scared to admit it!) Trust plays a critical role in the innovation process, so reducing fear and managing the risks involved in being creative should be a top priority for business leaders.
Hierarchical, fear-based cultures paralyse organisations. Such cultures might sound antiquated, but surprisingly they are often found in new, digital-age companies. These businesses have transformed quickly from fast-paced, high-risk organisations to ones in which people watch their backs and fear for their job security. Often this shift is a reaction to rapid organisational growth; a failure to keep in touch with original values and culture combines with negative pressure to perform as markets mature and the gold rush wanes.
The current economic climate is also a significant influence on organisational cultures. When times are tricky, people tend to play it safe, reluctant to jeopardise their own reputation and livelihood. Yet the brave new world is for those that embody the 'fail fast, iterate quickly' approach, celebrating and learning from mistakes. For these businesses, failure is 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 is one that encourages its people to constantly strive to implement value-creating ideas within their sphere of control, creating a culture of experimentation in which people aren’t constantly afraid of repercussions.
At Impact, we come across many individuals who have ideas that could truly revolutionise their organisations – were it not for the fact that they are too scared to challenge the status quo or put their head above the parapet. Senior leaders speak openly about encouraging innovation and supporting people who make mistakes, yet their behaviour and actions contradict this. Beholden to their shareholders and markets, such leaders inadvertently create a 'top-down fear culture'.
In contrast, an inspired and inspiring leader makes it their job to role model positive ways of supporting risk-takers, experimenters and those with 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, so let's find the problems as soon as possible and fix them; let's test what's possible, I trust you.' It would certainly make a change from micro-management, which is often the result of further micro-management higher up… quickly resulting in a deeply embedded fear culture.
Moving towards a culture built on trust rather than one driven by fear is not easy. Whatever your role or position, pro-actively challenging existing behaviours and mindsets requires bravery. Furthermore, gaining the support needed to address a top-down fear-driven culture can be particularly difficult when it is well-masked and the business seems to run successfully, or at least sufficiently, on auto-pilot.
However, an organisation that relies on fear is not sustainable. The war for talent will be won by those that provide a trusting, creative culture in which each person can flourish. Competitive edge will be gained by those organisations whose people are at liberty to experiment, fail, improve and succeed. And market share will be achieved by those who foster a collaborative approach to doing business, exuding confidence and trust as they 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 choice who will comply with the systems, processes and management controls designed 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 – difficult conversations can stimulate progress.
- Develop leaders who are agile enough to flex and respond appropriately to rapidly unfolding situations, whilst retaining clarity of vision against which to make judgements.
- Never lose sight of your organisational values and culture – this is where it all starts.
- Encourage delegation and minimise micro-management.
- Be transparent – be prepared to share information and make sure to involve people in making the decisions that affect them.
- Don’t get hung up on metrics and policies. Use common sense and resist introducing endless rules and measurements that only serve to impede independent, creative thinking.
What's your experience?
Please use the comments section below to let us know your thoughts. What are the telltale signs of a fear culture in an organisation? Have you got any best practice you could share?
David Williams is Impact's Founder and CEO. You can connect with him here.