I’m pretty sure this is going to be a controversial statement, but I’m saying it anyway. The culture of fear in your organization (yes, I’m pretty sure there’s a culture of fear in your organization) is stemming from leaders’ unwillingness to create discomfort for non-performance. Your sympathizing, coddling, engagement-protecting managers are doing more damage to your culture than those with a firm grip. If you had predictable, measured, escalating consequences for non-performance, your culture of fear would be diminished.

Let me explain.

Day after day, I work with executive teams who struggle with the lack of accountability in their organizations. They’re frustrated by people who fail to step up or who quickly apportion blame elsewhere when commitments aren’t delivered. When I dig a little deeper, two other themes often emerge. First, there are trust issues; and second, there is a pervasive culture of fear.

How is it possible that executives are wrestling with insufficient accountability while employees are feeling mistrusted and fearing retribution? How? If you understand trust, you’ll see why these themes inevitably show up together.

Trust is really just about predictability. We humans like when our world is predictable and when our experience matches our expectations. We trust people who behave the way we expected them to and mistrust those who surprise us. That’s because we’re wired to drop everything when something foreign, and potentially threatening, happens in our environment. Essentially, people who behave unpredictably require more effort, are more emotionally and cognitively taxing, and are generally disruptive to our happy, mindless, habit-filled days. And that’s why we don’t trust them.

So, what does trust have to do with low accountability? Shouldn’t employees mistrust and fear leaders who are tougher on them and prefer leaders who are more understanding and cut them some slack?

Actually, no.

Here’s a counter-intuitive thought: leaders who don’t follow through with unpleasant consequences for lack of performance are actually eroding trust not just with other members of the team, but even with the non-performer himself because an aversive consequence was the predictable, expected outcome.

When a person fails to perform, she’s expecting some form of consequence for her action (or inaction). If there are no repercussions for her transgression, her reality doesn’t meet her expectation. Now she’s tiptoeing around, worrying about a punishment that might or might not come. That causes a prolonged period of trepidation and perhaps even a persistent low level of stress.

If you’re not holding people accountable, you’re creating a culture of fear based on a lack of consequences, rather than on overly harsh or frequent punishment. I believe that’s why we have organizational cultures with a perverse fear of nothing. The fear is of an imagined consequence and that imagined consequence grows into something far scarier than if the leader had provided measured feedback in the first place. (Think monster under the bed.) Our fantasies are often much more frightening than reality. Our guilt over getting away with something can be far worse than if we’d been caught and reprimanded appropriately.

The path to increased trust and decreased fear

  1. Set clear expectations up front. Setting clear expectations requires more than forwarding an email. You need a two-way conversation to transmit the expectations and then to confirm that the person interpreted them as you intended. If your expectations aren’t clear, the person will have anxiety about getting it wrong right from the start.
  2. Milestones and course correction. Take multiple opportunities to check-in on work as it’s being planned and executed. That way, you have time to make minor course corrections before the errors have led to actual problems. These check-ins provide the opportunity to reaffirm your expectations and highlight if things are off the rails. If there is a capability or resource gap, you need to address it right away.
  3. Firm and unyielding consequences for non-performance. If none of those actions prevents the person from missing a deliverable or submitting sub-standard work, you need to have consequences that, at the very least, cause some discomfort. At first, revisit the expectations, discuss any skill gaps, look for missing resources and find positive ways to get a different outcome the next time. If the person concealed his confusion or inability, make it clear that it’s not ok. In fact, make it more uncomfortable to not admit these problem than to admit them.
  4. Once non-performance becomes a pattern, your consequences should get more serious and more uncomfortable each time. Shift to a more formal performance improvement program so that you have documentation of the issues.
  5. An end point. Sticking with people that you don’t have confidence in is unkind. If you have reached the point where you can no longer trust the person to do her job, it’s your obligation to get her out of that role. At this stage, everything about your body language and tone is likely betraying your mistrust and that is resulting in profound fear.

We’re so focused on building great places to work with high engagement and positive cultures, that we’ve inadvertently allowed a culture of fear to creep in. Instead of having clear expectations and predictable consequences for non-performance, we’re leaving everyone guessing. I bet that more consequences would lead to less fear.

Further Reading

Culture is the Cheapest Thing to Change

Mistakes Team Leaders Make: Culture of Fear

The Case for More Conflict