The complexity and speed of business today, competing priorities and interdependencies, increasing demands and the constant swirl of ambiguity are the drivers for growing amounts of frustration within the workforce. Leaders must recognize the polarized environment in which we live and work to mitigate the outside influences that bring about internal conflict. We have seen the clash between fear and trust grow exponentially in the past few years and have begun to recognize the assault on psychological safety, which undergirds a number of issues in the organization that erodes trust, clouds thinking, dampens decision-making capacity and increases conflict among employees.

The reality is that unnecessary friction among employees and costly errors occur because of the four-letter f-word that is more prevalent than ever before — F-E-A-R. Fear cascades through organizations, eroding and weakening the foundations of businesses today. At times, it is the result of an accidental culture that fosters a willful lack of awareness. Other times it perpetuates as a means of corporate control. Boards have a fear of producing shareholder returns. Leaders have fear about living up to the immediate expectations and ramifications to both the company and their own status at the helm. While fear is a necessary part of any leadership position, successful leaders often know how to compartmentalize, address and even leverage the fear that comes with accountability.

Fear in Action

Where fear is debilitating is at the mid-level manager and front-line employee levels of companies. And, that fear can inhibit employees’ productivity, and worse, paralyze the organization. This is where the stakes are the highest: fear accidentally becomes a defining element of culture, deterring safety performance and creating an unhealthy work environment. Compliant organizations operate within a framework that, intentionally or not, supports separation and dissent amongst employees, exacerbating their fears – of the unknown, of failure, of repercussion and of judgment. Experiencing these fears activates a ‘fight or flight’ reaction that impacts well-being and productivity in a negative way. Fear, if left unchecked, can become the dominant force throughout the workplace.

Where fear is unaddressed, it results in permeable negative energy that manifests itself in many ways that harm people and erodes trust. We see unhealthy fear in companies when employees make poor decisions because of a perceived “fear of retribution” — they think they will be reprimanded for minor mistakes, even when they are following strict protocol encouraged or set in motion by leadership. In these environments, employees become overly concerned with how co-workers or their immediate supervisor perceive them. Especially in today’s workplace, employees have an insatiable need to fit in and be part of the larger community. Leaders increasingly neglect to recognize that their employees often congregate or live near each other outside of work, further supporting the need to fit in and decreasing the desire to stand out. Employees’ fear of making mistakes is exacerbated by their own concern of how others will critique their actions.

Fear prevents us from being proactive, being engaged, and being confident in the work that we’re doing. There are environments where clear expectations on stopping unsafe work or providing necessary feedback are engrained in the workplace — yet, for whatever reason, employees still are fearful. The result is that they continue to comply and do only what is expected, but not what is needed for the success of the company or safety of the people around them.

Today, unhealthy fear in business is doing more harm to employees/companies than ever, because leadership fails to recognize how their working style can perpetuate a problematic work environment that hinges on a culture of fear to drive results. These ‘comply or else’ environments often develop from middle or even lower-level management. When leadership and management treat employees as replaceable pieces in a corporate machine, we often see increased levels of fear stifling the organization and less and less honest feedback from the frontlines. Look no farther than some of the most tragic and high profile accidents incorporations – in each case, someone, often at a lower level, predicted the outcome, but they didn’t have the courage or were not allowed to speak up and stop the inevitable from happening.

To leverage fear and move beyond its grasp within organizations, the first step is to acknowledge its presence. Here are three concepts that turn unhealthy fear into healthy fuel for productivity:

1. Empowering Employees

On the opposite end of the empowerment spectrum is micro-management. In these top-down hierarchies that rely on manager-initiated, punishment-based feedback, a ‘sit and wait culture’ tends to emerge, where employees become nothing more than taskmasters that are there to check off the boxes. In this position, employees rarely feel secure enough to take initiative or step up – they end up becoming invisible and remain behind the scenes doing what they need to maintain their position. However, empowering employees enables them to personally own their work, speak up and feel positively engaged in everything they do.

One way to empower employees is to establish personal accountability plans. This sets clear expectations while at the same time provides employees autonomy to make critical decisions. This style of manager-employee relations creates open, two-way communication pathways that assure employees that they are not being watched at every turn and provides employers with a clear set of expectations and accountability measures for their employees.

Another approach is for leadership teams to establish a leadership visibility platform, where they are purposefully engaging with the workforce on a more personal level. The intentionality of the leadership’s approach to being visible demonstrates a level of engagement and openness that emails, videos, and memorandums cannot convey. The leader’s presence begins to norm behaviors throughout the company and encourages healthy conversations in an environment where frontline employees become more comfortable and capable of fully engaging.

2. Encouraging Employee Voice

In an effort to remain efficient, many companies rely on top-down communication systems that encourage the ‘trickle-down’ of information from leadership to employees. However, this often becomes one-sided, creating a format where employees do not feel safe enough to reach out or speak up, much less, take action.

To make sure employees’ voices are heard, companies create two-way, reciprocal feedback loops for communicating. Bottom-up communications from employee to manager or employee to leadership are essential if companies want to continue improving their collaboration. If employees know their thoughts will be respected and that they will receive feedback that is authentic, constructive and non-accusatory, they will feel safer to approach their higher-ups to have crucial conversations. In a two-way communication system, feedback becomes intentional and is structured in a purposeful way so that everyone feels valued and capable of voicing any concerns. This form of communication system relies less on technology and more on human interaction and connection at various touchpoints across the organization.

Recognition programs are another way to build community and to give voice to employees and their work. Employee recognition programs provide positive, growth-oriented feedback in areas that matter most to leadership and company culture. Creating a purposeful, on-going recognition program that champions employees who exhibit the company’s espoused core values and behaviors allows individuals to strive for achievement and enhances the camaraderie of everyone involved. These programs help to empower employees and encourage productive purposeful behaviors. Likewise, it is important to encourage programs where employees can also recognize their peers and managers, further building communication and trust in the organization.

3. Building a Culture of Trust 

Central to addressing fear is to infuse trust, its antidote, throughout the company. Organizations have the chance to cultivate trust by changing the nature of relationships within the company. If employees feel genuinely respected – knowing they are valued intrinsically for their worth and not just as a means of productivity – they are capable of trusting others in leadership, management, and amongst their co-workers.

The practice of delivering s essential in society, especially with social media at employees’ fingertips throughout the workday. Leaders have worked to desensitize and corporatize information so that it lessens the blow of difficult information or limits the reach of broader organizational promises. A culture of trust can only be established by telling the truth, respectfully, in conversations, performance reviews and corporate presentations, including feedback from employee surveys. We hurt people more with partial truths in the long run than by being open, honest and fully transparent at the moment. Additionally, instead of holding on to difficult news with a “need to know” mindset, leaders must be willing to sound the alarm early and often to prepare the workforce for the reality of a given situation. It may not change the impact on the employee, but it is fair and right to give them ample notice to begin to prepare for any eventuality. This is one of the great trust builders in organizations.

Great leaders live their words. They identify ways to make promises and live up to them. They understand that their actions speak louder than their words. As part of delivering on the promise and living their words, leaders recognize and seize opportunities to demonstrate follow through on pledges, to hold other leaders accountable for living the company’s values and culture, and to promote an open and inclusive environment that not only encourages but demands different perspectives be considered. Simply put, when leaders live their words they begin to aggregate credits that collectively build and sustain trust.

The fear employees face today is real. It is an evolving dynamic inside every company that is regularly stirred up by the constant state of change outside of our organizations. We are not often fearful of what we will say or do, but what the world around us will say or do to us. The key is to help employees create an environment of trust. In the highest performing companies, the four-letter f-word isn’t avoided; rather, it is acknowledged, understood and addressed.