The 8 Clear Signs of a Workplace Culture of Fear

Two major incidents in the last week made me think about the signs of a culture of fear since fear is the ultimate culture killer!

Ex-Rutgers basketball coach Mike Rice was interviewed by Good Morning America host Robin Roberts about the abusive behavior that led to his firing nearly seven months ago. He proclaimed “I’ve changed” as he showed remorse for his actions that included pushing players, throwing basketballs at their heads, screaming obscenities, and using anti-gay slurs.

Rutgers of course isn’t the only organization that’s been horrified by something in their culture.

The role of leadership in building culture

It was ironic this occurred in the same week the NFL assigned a special investigator regarding the NFL Miami Dolphins and the entire situation surrounding the departure of Jonathan Martin from the team due to potential hazing. Richie Incognito, a player suspended from the team for conduct detrimental to the team, was interviewed and said “all this stuff coming out speaks to the culture of our locker room” and “it’s a product of the environment.”

Are you kidding me? Talk about no individual accountability! This investigation and the media frenzy surrounding it will uncover behavior that will make the Mike Rice-Rutgers situation look like a minor lapse in leadership, and will go far beyond any debate about workplace hazing.

Details about the incredibly poor judgment of Miami Dolphins leaders are already leaking out and any blame directed towards the “locker room culture” completely overlooks the role of leadership in building an effective culture.

Does fear exist in your organization?

Fear is the ultimate culture killer. Most organizations have some level of fear that holds back the potential of their organization on many fronts.

It’s not always a major incident that thrusts the subject of fear and unacceptable behavior into the limelight. Fear at some level and the lack of full alignment around values and expected behaviors is rampant in many organizations today.

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Fear slows organizations down, causes hesitation, drives stress, and keeps literally millions of individuals from reaching their potential in effectively supporting their organizations.

What are signs of fear to watch for in your organization? Here are eight (8) signs, and these DO NOT indicate there is the presence of a severe issue like at Rutgers and the Miami Dolphins.

The 8 signs to watch for

However, these DO indicate fear at some level may be holding back the performance of your organization. And, there is likely a negative impact on many individuals from any one of these signs.

  1. Bad behavior is not visibly confronted. Behavior issues, if confronted at all, are behind closed doors and the other members of the organization have no idea whether any substantial corrective action is being taken. If behavior doesn’t improve with the individual in question then some may assume the behavior is considered an acceptable way to deliver results. Bad behavior needs confronted clearly and respectfully when it occurs so there is no question surrounding acceptable behavior. It’s fine to follow-up in private later.
  2. Compensation, incentives and/or promotions are based on results, not results AND behavior. Results at any cost could become the norm if behavior is not a priority and evaluated based on feedback from others. Just one leader showing unacceptable behavior can have a severe and negative impact on many individuals.
  3. “Explosions” are evident periodically from one or more top leaders. This is not about a passionate call to action from a top leader. I am referring to negative, critical explosions that do not motivate unless it’s purely out of fear. Leaders work very hard to build trust but a negative explosion raises fear and may raise doubts or second thoughts in people about taking action.
  4. Pre-meetings are the norm. This behavior is often rampant in many large organizations but even impacts small businesses. Presentations, proposals, new ideas and other subjects must be reviewed with lower levels, senior managers or other groups before a meeting with a top leader. The focus can end up being on what a leader wants to hear versus what they need to hear.
  5. Communication is poor or one-way. Leaders often underestimate the importance of communication or they neglect to design communication sessions to build trust and open two-way communication. Q&A may take place but result in “softball” questions instead of surfacing drama, rumors, fears and areas where there is a lack of clarity.
  6. Email is used to cover your rear or is not proactively used. it may be common to reply to all or copy countless people to make sure everyone is in the loop. On the other hand, Emails that need sent or should involve copying individuals at a higher level or other personnel are not sent due to fear or concern about how they will react.
  7. A general lack of clarity and alignment about managing work. the lack of clarity and alignment around strategies, priorities, goals, measures and supporting expected values / behaviors drives uncertainty and “fear” at some level. This fear causes hesitation and holds back proactive action. A sign of an effective culture is that “people act on what they know” instead of having second thoughts, hesitation, and fears about action.
  8. Values and expected behaviors are not specifically defined and reinforced. Values may be defined on the website or poster on the wall but they haven’t been translated to expected behaviors so they are consistently interpreted. See Zappos, Ritz Carlton and The Container Store for great examples. Systems for hiring, management, development, communication and motivation are not designed to specifically reinforce the values and expected behaviors.

CEO’s, owners of sports teams, university administrators and other top leaders know culture is important but some neglect to drive out fear and relentlessly reinforce the culture they desire to build or maintain.

This list barely touches the surface, what other signs of fear did I miss? Do you agree that fear is the ultimate culture killer?

Tim Kuppler is the co-founder of and Director of Culture and Organization Development for Human Synergistics, a 40+ year pioneer in the workplace culture field with the mission of Changing the World—One Organization at a Time®. He co-authored the 2014 book Build the Culture Advantage, Deliver Sustainable Performance with Clarity and Speed. He previously managed substantial workplace culture transformations as an industry executive and was President and Senior Consultant at Denison Consulting. Contact him at


35 Comments on “The 8 Clear Signs of a Workplace Culture of Fear

  1. I’m not sure people would see these eight elements and instantly think it’s a culture of “fear” – but they certainly would think it’s a dysfunctional culture. Fear drives many dysfunctional behaviors (territoriality, CYA, yes-men), so it’s good to think of fear as being more than outright bullying and crying in the restroom.

    1. I agree. These aspects of the culture or “how things work around here” tend to drive or reinforce fear. They are just the tip of the iceberg and signs of the dysfunctional behavior likely being present. Your examples are also very good: territorial leaders that have to approve everything or don’t share information, CYA tendencies on many fronts and yes-men everywhere are also good signs.

  2. Just read the article and loved it. I was hire a couple of years ago to rebuild a sales division and all eight of these elements were the culture. After two and a half years I resigned with no other job waiting because the owners felt that the fear culture was good. Good lesson on accepting a job offer is to do a background reference check on a company before taking the leap.

    1. Thank you for your feedback. I sympathize with the challenge you faced and the need for any cultural fit evaluation of new hires to be a two way street. Some leaders that see these issues in an organization they are looking to join might jump at the chance (if they could dramatically influence them in their new role). They could see it as a huge opportunity. Others that would depend on gaining support from a boss, top leader or owner to make any changes better make sure they have that support before moving into the role or they could be chewed up and spit out with lots of collateral damage on everyone involved. A culture of fear will continue to be alive and well at some organizations despite the efforts of many involved if it’s being reinforced from the top. Unfortunately, many leaders don’t recognize how damaging some of these “signs of fear” can be on people and their efforts to achieve SUSTAINABLE results.

  3. I totally agree.. It’s starts in our institutions. Peer to peer, Teacher
    to student, Admin to employee. It’s greatest form of bullying, this
    century has ever seen. “It’s MY WAY or the highway!” or “Do it ’cause
    I’m the boss, you’re nothing!” Isn’t this why this world is the way it is?Instilling Fear at such a young age?

    1. I appreciate the perspective and agree this behavior can start or be reinforced very early in life since our individual values are set at an early age. I think there’s a huge range of fear holding back performance in organizations that spans from the intentional fear-driving actions and attitudes like you give all the way through the more subtle approaches, applied with good intentions, that also tend to drive fear. The bullying and “my way or the highway” leaders will struggle sustaining results in many situations and may never convert to a better approach. I think most leaders are somewhere in the middle where the subtler behaviors like the less frequent “explosion,” promoting based on results only (and not addressing behavior issues), poor communication and other areas are unintentionally driving fear and they can and should do something about.

      1. Tim, another great post, with excellent comments (I read them all!). I am responding here, because I think you’ve hit the nail on the head here, Tim (along with the others in their comments) concerning “the subtler behaviors.”

        Whether overt bullying or subtler behaviors are involved, in all cases I would venture to say that part of the problem is failure by leadership to truly understand the “stereophonic” (for lack of a better term) nature of truly outstanding individual human information processing, that can lead to “quadraphonic” (again, for lack of a better term) awareness, understanding, and more effective action by the organization.

        By this I mean the FACT that individual and collective performance is enhanced when the parties involved are willing, able, and actually supported to constructively bring both their intellectual and emotional understandings to the table. I can’t emphasize this enough. This contributes to the “quadrophonic” experience in a high-functioning environment.

        There are ways to do this that truly work and are appreciated by those involved, driving higher individual and collective performance — and satisfaction.

        To be sure, dependent upon your own background and experiences, the circumstances are “complicated” or “enhanced” by the fact that we are not all cut from the same cloth.

        For those not yet familiar with what I am calling “quadraphonic” engagement and understanding, it is a complication to apparently be avoided. This contributes to the multiple dysfunctions in a culture of fear.

        Barbara Trautline, Principal of Change Catalysts, provides a thought-provoking description of how individuals’ different information-processing priorities leads to different business results. I direct you to her description of typical gender differences in approaches to business leadership, which can be found in response to my blog (“Are There Gender Differences, Generally, in Business Contributions?”):

        A primary point in the present context is consistent with your point made, Tim, in your April 5,2013 TLNT blog titled, “…Look in the Mirror.”

        Fortunately, there appears to be an ongoing progression in human understandings and capacities over the long term. This applies to business leadership and management understandings, as well. It is apparent to me that business “best practices” will continue to compete more effectively in the short- and long-term. Business “best practices” clearly includes creating the cultural conditions for “quadraphonic” listening and understandings to enable all people to play to their strengths in a manner that supports organizational goals.

        I make this point in my own blog titled, “Business Leaders: How will you keep up amidst accelerating and ever-increasing competition?” which can be found at .

        My hat is off to everyone who has commented and contributed to this present blog.

        I wonder what stories people might share concerning their (1) positive experiences in a high-performing “quadrophonic” culture, including their (2) positive experiences concerning executives’ openness to being in control of themselves, but not of their co-workers, whom they view as bringing extra value to the table.

        I am all ears!


        1. Thanks Norman – you are completely correct. The good news is that even subtle shifts in behavior by leaders to move away from one of these signs will speak volumes. The impact will be far greater than they think. Change is hard because they not only under-estimate the impact of the fear-reinforcing current behaviors they will also under-estimate the positive impact of a change. That’s where coaching comes in to encourage a more constructive approach, trying some new things AND having them go obtain feedback from others about how the more positive approach is being received.

  4. I worked for an organization that rewarded results over behaviors. That philosophy and practice resulted in the company receiving a $140M fine from the government. It’s not just about results; it’s got to be about HOW we get results.

    1. You are so right. Hopefully it was a wake-up call for that company. Unfortunately some think results somehow justifies any fear-driving behavior that’s involved and they don’t realize most people would go after results even more if their organization supported behaviors that built pride (in individuals, teams and the overall organization).

  5. I work for an organization that one of the team leaders has the attitude “It’s MY WAY or the high way!” and “Do it ’cause I’m the boss, you’re nothing!” as David Deke mentioned in his post. And for some reason, I don’t know why, she has all the support from the higher management so far. Probably, she knows how to sweet talk to the higher, but she really looks down on the lower rank, and sees they are like nothing. Most of the employees here are afraid of her. Many employees have reported her behaviour/attitude to the higher management, but they got no result. And some of them have had a very hard time with this leader after reporting. Therefore, they fear to speak up and get punishment. But they talk with each other, they are not happy, they are angry and react quietly by calling in sick more and more, and they don’t feel like to commit and engage to the organization any more. I’ve never seen the rate of people calling in sick so high and the morale of the employees is so low like this before.

    1. I feel for you. You are not alone. There’s a huge negative impact on people even if the leader is somehow able to deliver results. If the issues are known at a higher level and there’s nothing done about it then it’s as if they were driving the fear directly. There is some safety in numbers as people plot behind the scenes about what step could make things better. Feel free to contact me separately if any ideas would help.

    2. I know someone just like this…and their fear that they arent seen as one of the leaders manifests itself in bad behaviour and bullying tactics. Very sad and destructive.

      1. Yes, this leader is really like a bully and a dictator, never listens to reasonable requests from staff, always pushes staff/employees to do what she says. I don’t know why the upper management just go along with her. Don’t know how long she will last? The employees here are so much dissatisfied and angry. There are so much turnovers and sick leave. The tension here is like a serious cancer or a time bomb. It’s really sad and destructive.

        1. These situations are definitely sad and destructive. If you need the job you are in and there is no hope talking to your boss then it’s unlikely anything will change unless upper management recognizes the problem as being serious enough to take action. Unfortunately it takes a “time bomb” in some organizations for people to realize how destructive the behavior can be. It can be a very dangerous road going above the head of your boss. Hopefully there is someone among you that has trust built or a relationship with a peer of your boss or even a member of upper management that might be willing to listen to and do something about the pain you are all experiencing. If business results are good then some organizations / people may continue to ignore the problem but any leader that’s worth anything should take a stand for common decency and stop the cancer from spreading.

          1. Thank you, Tim, for this article. It is a wonderful opportunity for people to speak up their opinions/feelings. Thank you for your time and kindness to reply to almost every post.

            When I said “The tension here is like a serious cancer or a time bomb”, I meant the TENSION itself. And who created this tension at the beginning? I never think I would like to take a dangerous road going above the head of my boss. Sometimes, people don’t know with whom they can talk to, they come online to vent. That’s what the internet for.

            No matter what the situation at my workplace is at the present time, I believe the upper management is watching everyone.

            I am very grateful to my employer and always want to do a good job for this organization. I believe most of the employees here and everywhere want to do the same for their employers. But they need to have the right leaders who can lead with good examples, with integrity. Leaders lead, employees follow; and they learn and pick up what their leaders demonstrate.

            Nowadays, with high technology, people are much smarter and complicated; leaders really need to have high EIIQ (Emotional Intelligence IQ). They need to have good people skills.

            The world needs more Leaders like Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., not Saddam Hussein or Adolf Hitler.

            Thanks again for your great article.

  6. I experienced an organization where result is the only thing matters and there showed at least 4 signs out of 8 as described. People started to do anything so long as the result is hit, including fraud. Interestingly, I observe the manager who created this fearful organization actually had the deepest fear at heart – there was serious confidence issue hence the gap of competence was not faced and handled. This is what wrong placement and development of leadership can do harm to an organization.

    1. Hi Holly,
      You make a really interesting point. The fear can become infectious, even with people that have the “deepest fear at heart” as you say. People that wouldn’t normally act this way do out of fear and it becomes even more deeply ingrained in the culture.

  7. I worked for an organization where the Chairman would openly disparage his business leaders when they did not achieve results — sometimes kicking them out of the meeting. In one meeting, the Chairman and his executives were given sheets of paper to “rate” each presenter secretly. As result, we would have countless numbers of pre meetings to get ready for business reviews and the organization became overly internally focused (as noted in your article) – wasting valuable time on making sure materials were properly positioned for the Chairman and the internal executives. To add insult to injury – every few months or so the Chairman would actually condemn all the pre meetings taking place as a result of all of the fear — he would then declare “all this needed to stop!” He would “say” he was committed to a new process of transparency and solving business problems openly and would have his finance people revamp the business review process — including cutting out people and layers who attended these meetings (sometimes as punishment). And guess what? The FEAR would continue at an even more intense level. It was EXHAUSTING. The ultimate hypocrisy was that this was an organization that espoused values of openness, trust, caring for others and integrity — and yet, I have never seen a culture of more fear and desperation that I did while at this company.

    1. Mary – thank you for sharing. Fear is exhausting! Espoused values make it even more of a joke if they are not connected to the day to day. Review processes, like the situation you shared, is where the talk about behavior and values ends with some companies. As we know, there is a better way to achieve results, sustainable results that actually have a positive impact on the lives of those involved.

  8. Thank you for this insight! I just left an organization without another opportunity and this was exactly what I found was the cause of all the dysfunction. My boss could never provide me with clear direction and would never make a decision on anything. I had zero authority and was not empowered to implement anything. My team couldn’t even market training that was available unless our A.V.P. edited the message. I have been working for 30 years and this was my first time dealing with this sort of culture. When we piloted programs that matched our business needs and reached the point whereby we were ready to launch, I would get the rug pulled out from under me and the A.V.P. would then say we needed something else…this wasn’t the direction we needed to head; basically, one moving target after the next. When I asked about having the opportunity to be empowered, I was told that no one is empowered and we only make decisions through teams who collaborate. Well let me tell you, you will never get everyone to agree when you have a group of 10 or more on the team. If you do, it will be a very slow and drawn out process. I have thankfully decided to move on. I want to ensure that the next place I land does not have these issues. Do you have any key questions that I might ask in a future interview to ensure that the company does not possess these issues?

    1. Hello Cindy,
      There are some questions that will help but these are no guarantee. They should surface signals that may give you a bad vibe about the organization. I list these with some hesitation since I joined one organization and the week afterwards someone pulled me aside and told me it was a “culture of fear.” The signs are always there. Try the following to surface the signs and pay special attention to any hesitation and uncomfortable responses:
      1 – be direct. Talk about the type of culture you want to be a part of (since cultural fit is a two-way street) and share your negative experience from your past role. It’s a perfect foundation to directly ask about what you experienced at your past organization and how it compares to another organization.
      2 – ask about the strengths and weaknesses of their culture but take the weakness discussion a next step to find out how the weaknesses play out in meetings, communication, performance evaluation, day to day work, etc. Find out what specifically is being done to deal with the weaknesses if they are impacting performance or morale. If they are not forthcoming about weaknesses then ask about common frustrations people seem to share since every organization has issues or dynamics where some improvements are needed.
      3 – ask about the 8 signs of a culture of fear in this blog post. These are just signs of potential underlying fear but they are a way to talk about “how things work around here” or the culture if #1 and #2 above aren’t surfacing what you need.
      Hope this helps – Tim.

  9. I would add to this… when conducting employee surveys (of any type: satisfaction surveys, engagement surveys etc) a large neutral zone appears. This can indicate complacency, but it can ALSO indicate a presence of fear – as if people are “afraid to say what they’re afraid to say!”

    1. Excellent addition. Response rates don’t always tell the story. “High scores” don’t always mean there’s not an extremely serious issue. I like to double check with performance and the general attitude of employees. If performance is weak and survey results are very positive then there could be issues with fear, how the data is going to be used, etc. There could also be issues with confronting reality since people might be clear, aligned and engaged as they go over a cliff together.

  10. Thank you for being so clear in your descriptions. I am seeking a new position and this article and the comments from your readers have given me things to look for and think about in my next position. I want to be and give my best and being in these dsyfunctional environments make it difficult to deliver because your fighting the grain versus achieving results. And, yes it is exhausting.

    1. Thank you for the feedback. The “right” company will be impressed by your questions and will be open about the dysfunctions they are working to improve.

  11. This is such great and true perspective on what is often not talked about in the work place. It’s such a shame when one or many members of staff in a company you respect and choose to devote your career to, are unable to embrace change and evolve due to fears and insecurities in their own abilities. It does have a negative impact on other teams and departments, and inevitably, fear and negativity will only breed the same throughout.

    1. Thank you for the feedback – it is a shame this tends to spread and hold people back from driving change with others and making the most of their career. The people that try another approach with others stand out in these cultures. In some cases that’s great for their careers unless the fear-drivers want to visibly stop positive progress as it builds. Feeling like a victim and holding back from driving change can be even more miserable so it’s worth giving change a shot in coordination with at least one other person. “99% of failures come from people who have a habit of making excuses.” – George Washington Carver

  12. “A nation that is afraid to let its people judge the truth and falsehood
    in an open market is a nation that is afraid of its people.” – JFK

  13. We have a manager whose cancerous, vile, company-hating and employee-abusing behavior has somehow escaped real consequences. I’m sure it helps that he’s perceived to be responsible for some large revenue numbers, but I’d wager that his production would quickly be eclipsed by a bad day in court over his hostilities. Fear is this jerk’s stock-in-trade. I’m counting the days to his anticipated voluntary departure. I’ve never wanted to fire someone so bad in my 30 year career.

    1. I believe everyone gets their due in the long run. The fear-drivers eventually pay the price either professionally, emotionally or in some other form. It’s unfortunate it can take a day in court or another crisis for some situations to change.

  14. Tim,

    Negative corporate cultures such as one characterized by fear are caused
    by executives who view their job as directing and controlling the
    creation of products and services for customers. Carrying out this view
    creates a negative corporate culture.

    To achieve excellence and create the very best culture, management must
    realize that directing and controlling the creation of products and
    services is the job of the workforce and that management’s job is to use
    its authority to provide the workforce whatever it needs to excel in
    doing that. The workforce needs high levels of such things as
    competence, confidence, morale, trust, peace of mind, autonomy,
    commitment, motivation, and pride. For the vast majority of the
    workforce, only management can create high levels of those. The process
    is quite simple.

    The last time I did it, employee performance rose by over 300%, almost
    everyone loved to come to work, and our competitors were unable to
    compete with us. Fear was rampant when I took over but disappeared
    totally within 2 years.

    1. Congratulations Ben. Building trust, confidence and pride is clearly a better route and it’s unfortunate some never try to take that route due to their own fear about the unknown. It will change as positive and constructive cultures consistently win out in the marketplace. Thank you for sharing your experience.

  15. Hi Tim, Loved the article. It was great to read an insightful piece of writing after a while. Its crucial to keep such sings in mind as over 65% of the workforce today feel that they have a poor work culture. We recently published a similar blog and I think it’d be a great read for you( Link – ). Would love to hear your thoughts on it.

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