How to Build a Culture of Fear in 3 Easy Steps

Thu, Oct 15, 2009

Culture of FearLeaders, follow these three easy steps if you want to ensure that tough issues are never raised, that you don't receive early warning signs, and that employees are seen and not heard. If you follow these steps faithfully, you and your executive team will hold all the power. You will be secure in your conference room, knowing that no outside influences sway your decisions. You will be assured that you are right, and all others are wrong! But beware; pursuing this path could result in a totally avoidable train wreck. What if Merrill’s Board of Directors hadn’t turned a blind eye to internal risk managers who saw the dangers of collateralized debt obligations? What if AIG’s Board had recognized the folly of not holding its executives accountable for unsavory business practices?

What follows are the three surefire steps:

  1. When Someone Makes a Mistake, Put them in the Penalty Box

As an executive consultant, I have seen this phenomenon again and again, particularly in companies with highly educated and professional knowledge workers. When standards are high, the bar is raised. More often than not, this ensures outstanding work products and unimagined results. However, human beings are fallible and in the pursuit of excellence, mistakes are made. I once heard George Zimmer, CEO of Men’s Wearhouse give a talk. He explained that he encouraged his employees to make mistakes, and even rewarded them for mistakes. He saw mistakes as a learning opportunity. Unfortunately, some leaders punish those who have one misstep. These leaders take a negative snapshot which is difficult to change. They never view that individual in a different light.

  1. If Someone Brings up a Taboo Topic, Demote them. Better yet, fire them.

I have worked within companies where employees confide that they have been socialized not to raise taboo topics. Taboo topics often involve pay, promotions, favoritism, or unethical behavior. Employees easily cite company lore about individuals who challenged a boss, or brought up a taboo topic. These actions were deemed career limiting because the person in question either was demoted, or in some cases fired. Employees learn what is acceptable and unacceptable behavior by watching what happens to others. It is the rare leader who actively seeks the “elephants in the room.”

  1. When an Employee Brings you Bad News, Chastise Them

Many employees easily learn that they will be chastised or worse for bringing their boss bad news. I have witnessed employees spending hours polishing and spinning messages before they are escalated. Much of the spinning and polishing is aimed at ensuring that the blame falls elsewhere. Dr. David A. Bella has put together a fascinating theory about the systemic distortion of information. This happens when well intentioned individuals learn that it is not okay to tell the truth. Information gets polished as it goes up the leadership chain. By the time it reaches top management, the information is stripped of any bad news. The problem is that senior leaders don’t always have the full spectrum of data that they need to make strategic course corrections.

These are very tough economic times. When I visit client sites, leaders and employees alike are worried. However, fear and worry can shut down critical lines of communication. Now, more than ever, it is incumbent upon leaders to ensure that there is a free flow of information.

If you would like to assess your organization and ensure that you have not built a culture of fear, please contact me at for a complimentary consultation.

Marcia Ruben Ph.D, PCC, CMC

Marcia Ruben Ph.D, PCC, CMC

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