Everyone has a story to tell about toxic work environments. But what's driving this fear-based culture within so many businesses?

At this point, my team at Legacy Transformational Consulting has worked with 10,000 senior business leaders, across 300 companies, located in 100 countries, and have integrated ourselves within organizations representing a wide range of industries.

There's a blind spot we see over and over again within the organizations that have a "fear-based" culture: the leadership hasn't identified that their culture is the problem, and more importantly, don't fully grasp the cost it has over time.

When we start working with clients, ahead of our group session where we physically bring key leadership members together in the same room, we conduct individual "innerviews" to get a sense of the mood of the group, company culture and a landscape of what we are walking into.

It's not always the case, but overwhelmingly, we see fear as the main driver in company cultures. People report in their one-on-one innerviews a fear of speaking up, needing to document everything to "cover their ass", lots of politicking, the company speed is in constant overdrive, there's not much transparency, there's gossiping and silos or fragmented teams--and in some cases--even bullying or harassment from other team members. When these issues are present, it has a devastating effect on people, morale, creativity, performance and ultimately the bottom line.

If this sounds familiar within your organization, here are the clearest signs your culture is driven by fear.

High turnover rates.

When people love where they work, they tend to stay there. But when there's a cultural problem, organizations are constantly hiring to address their high churn rate. It's a good idea to review the numbers for how long employees tend to stay before leaving, while also looking for patterns of high turnover within departments. This is one of the easiest ways to identify where there are problems, then correct them to increase retention rates. 

A study from the Society for Human Resource Management found the direct cost of replacing an employee is between 50 to 60 percent of the employee's annual salary, but the total associated cost of the turnover is between 90 to 200 percent of the employee's annual salary. Allowing churn rates to remain high not only destroys morale, but wastes a lot of money.

Bad game of telephone: organizational plans get misinterpreted.

The cultural tone of an organization gets set from the top. A common situation we see repeatedly is that something happens that results in an executive, a group of executives, or even the CEO, creating a strategy that makes complete sense. It's a great idea. However, what gets communicated throughout the company does not provide enough background for everyone else to understand the vision, and therefore, effectively execute it.

Human beings are already living with lots of fear and anxiety, so with just one miscommunication, fuel is added to the fire of people distorting what is actually being stated. Before anyone is aware, six to eight months pass by and misinterpretations that are started by one person get blown out of proportion by another. And remember, the more something is repeated, the greater people believe it's true. Perception is reality.

My team is often brought into workplaces to address stories like these. What's missing is gathering the executives and managers from the beginning, stating clearly what the strategy is, why it is important, then listening to the way it actually lands for the people on the ground. Somehow, we think that when we speak, people get it the way we intend it. But that's often not the case.

Executives can't identify problems before they become crises.

Crises are expensive to resolve and damage organizational reputations and fortunes. When leadership is blindsided by problems that could have been fixed when they first appeared, it's almost always a sign of a toxic workplace culture. Here's why: someone was either too scared to tell leadership there was a problem, or leadership ignored them when it was reported.

It's never a good feeling to be in a leadership position when you're blindsided by problems. If it's already a stressful time, the odds of a manager snapping at whoever bears bad news go up. As you can see, small problems with a culture create a compounding effect that results in issues that need to be fixed only getting covered up or unreported. Ensuring communication flows to executive leaders, without punishment, goes a long way toward alleviating a culture of fear. 

Ultimately, if you or your team have any of the experiences mentioned here, this is your queue to do something about it. A toxic culture tends to disengage, exhaust and demotivate people. When this is present, tremendous opportunities are left on the table.

Published on: Oct 20, 2019
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