Nothing tanks workplace culture faster than fear. Researchers at Harvard Business School and Penn State found that fear in the modern workplace has reached epidemic levels, dissuading employees from speaking up and voicing important issues related to the business.
Whether employees fear retaliation, punishment, humiliation, or being fired, the study revealed that this emotion quickly leads to dissatisfaction and lowers productivity levels. Once this happens, you're not far from creating a domino effect that can torpedo creativity and lead to disengagement throughout the company. Fear is also the primary cause of much of the bad behavior you see in companies, from office politics to poor communication. While a culture of fear may temporarily make people work harder to try to avoid undesired consequences, leading through fear will always backfire on you--particularly when it comes to retention. In other words, fear kills the company's productivity engine.
At my company, we've determined that fear is our common enemy. Here are some ideas we're currently implementing to create a no-fear culture.
Rethink "entitlement." If you're a director, VP, or C-level exec, you come equipped to instill fear in your teams through your title alone. Imbalanced power dynamics based on hierarchy can inspire fear in those who report to you, leading people to share information selectively, as through rose-colored glasses. When you only hear what people think you want to hear, you miss out on a lot of important noise. You're screened from the truth, which is what any business really needs to thrive, improve, and reach its vision.
We've found one way around this: rethinking titles. We're currently implementing a set of simple internal titles designed to drill down to the essence of each person's role rather than convey a position of authority. We also empower our employees to select an appropriate external title for their business card to share with the outside world. A company that really values titles is one where there's also likely to be more fear. By making titles less important, you can break down a key element of the fear factor right off the bat, even with new hires.
Be a truth-seeker. Since fear keeps people from saying what they really think--turning them into people pleasers rather than problem solvers--it can result in the leadership team having a skewed view of what's really happening in the business. We don't want this to happen at Pluralsight, so one of our company's core values is called "Seeking the truth." In practice, this principle simply means that the truth is our top priority. It's everyone's job in the company to constantly seek the truth and try to improve things, which requires candid feedback and input. It requires the absence of fear.
You get there by building a culture of continual learning based on improvement, replacing the culture of fear based on reprisals. It's the job of leadership to help teams succeed not by top-down, command-and-control hierarchy, but by showing everyone it's OK to share new ideas and point a finger at something that's broken. When leaders can lead more like coaches than bosses, the resulting culture breeds people who aren't afraid to be truth-tellers.
Limit the rulebook. Too many rules reflect too little trust. When you really trust your team, you don't need as many rules. Reaching the point where that level of trust permeates the culture is important, because trust is a fear-buster that will result in employees feeling better about the company and its leadership team.
At Pluralsight, we currently only have two rules in our culture handbook: (1) Be kind, courteous, and respectful to those you work with, and (2) always do what's in the company's best interest. These simple rules are helping us rethink other policies as well, so that we can lead with basic principles rather than with fear.
Measure systems, not people. W. Edwards Deming proposed a theory to measure the performance of systems, not people, to help drive fear out of organizations. As one of Deming's 14 Points on Total Quality Management, he advised eliminating numerical quotas for the workforce, as well as numerical goals for management. We've taken this philosophy to heart with our sales team by eliminating sales commissions--and the short-term, "if-then," extrinsically motivated mentality behind them that grounds innovation. You can't have a culture of continual improvement if people are afraid of suffering serious financial consequences as a result of their individual performance.
Instead, our goal is to get everyone to realize that we're all in this together, working as a team and measuring the output of the overall system. This intrinsically motivated mentality encourages individual innovation on the sales team. It leads to better behavior, better performance, and improvements that can become breakthroughs for the company over time. We've taken another page from Deming's playbook by eliminating annual performance reviews companywide. In their place, we encourage frequent informal conversations between leadership and their teams with a focus on continual improvement, not just performance.
Find a feedback channel. Howcan you be sure you're hearing what you need to hear rather than what people think you want to hear? Build a Brain Trust. Taking the lead from Ed Catmull--who created "The Pixar Braintrust" to help the animation giant score box office hits--we recently assembled a cross-section of the company to give candid feedback to the leadership team every month. Through this Brain Trust, we receive internal guidance, direction, and strategy insights on decisions we're trying to make that are almost impossible to figure out in isolation.
Whether it's through revamped titles, fewer rules, or ferreting out a new feedback loop, the goals are the same: to replace fear with empowerment. Leaders who succeed in creating a no-fear culture will be rewarded with teams that spend less time on "CYA" behavior and more time helping you build a flourishing business.