Fear and Loathing at Work

Employee fear at work

Fear and Loathing at Work

Employee fear at work

The title of this blog is a hat tip to Hunter S. Thompson’s novel “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” a journalist’s acid trip through this desert-surrounded city, where his reality become unhinged.

This is an exaggeration, of course, when writing a blog about the workplace today. But it makes me think about Millennials entering the workplace; they show up, on their first day, excited about work and their contribution to the world. But it doesn’t take long for them to become disillusioned with the reality of a workplace, hunkered down with their earbuds (or noise-cancelling earphones), just doing the work.

What’s going on to change their attitude? Many times, it’s a fear-based work culture. What happens in a fear-based work culture? As Daniel Pink says (at 10:06 on this clip), “Negative emotions narrow our scope” at work. If you need to meet a specific goal at a specific time, you can motivate employees for that short space of time.

But if an organization creates a culture of fear overall: fear of failure, fear of performance, fear of speaking up, fear of anything, it limits the performance of everyone. When employees are fearful, according to Daniel Pink’s “Seven Deadly Flaws,” it can:

  • Extinguish personal motivation.
  • Diminish performance.
  • Crush creativity.
  • Crowd out good behavior.
  • Encourage cheating, shortcuts, and unethical behavior.
  • Become an addictive tool.
  • Foster short-term thinking.

How do you know if your culture is fear-based? Here are some of the telltale signs:

There are “taboo topics” at work

These are not topics that are socially inappropriate; instead, they are work-based topics that are unchallenged but, at times, make no sense. These are the “elephants in the room” that no one talks about but everyone is thinking. One example might be how people are rewarded: is it fair? Is it equitable? Does it make sense to everyone? In a healthy workplace culture, these subjects can be brought up and questioned without any embarrassment.

When employees make honest mistakes or miscalculations, they are punished

Everyone makes a mistake at some point in time. In the best environments, employees are encouraged to take some risks – as long as they are well-calculated. Sometimes, these will not have the intended outcomes. Great organizations learn from their mistakes and take it as an opportunity to grow and educate. In fear-base cultures, no one takes a chance on something new or different, so there’s less possibility for growth.

Leaders don’t lead, they scrutinize behavior

In a fearful organization, leaders are not out in front, leading the troops forward with their vision. Instead, they are inwardly focused, watching over everyone’s work and behavior. If employees feel they are being watched all the time and not trusted to do their best work, or get tasks done on time, it’s an environment of fear, not positive motivation.

Employees are fearful of retribution

There was a U.S.-based study done about employee attitudes that identified that 34% of employees are fearful to speak up about issues they saw that were not good in the workplace. This fear was caused by a variety of reasons and sources, many of which had to do with fear of repercussions, demotions, or even losing their jobs.

What’s the best way for everyone, of every generation, to be happy at work? It’s important to start of with an overall culture that is not fearful. If your organization has any of the signs pointed out here, take a second look at what’s going on and see if fear is behind the issue.

Not sure how to handle the inter-generational issues going on at your workplace? Contact me and let’s talk about it.

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