Cultures of Fear Fail

Updated: Aug 18, 2021

One of the simplest ways to identify bad management is a culture of fear. Most people are aware of this, but few understand where this originates or how to resolve it. I hope to shed some light on this dysfunction below.

Most people, if given a chance, would like to take pride in their work. Pay and benefits are requirements, but job satisfaction is the icing on the cake. Too often, managers feel that this is an expensive luxury. However, the opposite is true. Continuing with the cake metaphor, if you were shopping and had to decide between cake or a frosted cake, which would you choose? We all know the frosted cake will cost more, but frosted cakes outsell unfrosted every day of the week. Think of the last time you went to the bakery and tell me how many unfrosted cakes you saw. Tell me how many unfrosted cakes you have seen in your life. The same holds with worker productivity. The icing is what makes a cake, and job satisfaction is what makes a worker. 

Cultures of fear arise because management does not realize that every business is nothing more than a system designed by management. The employees are hired to fit within that system. The employees, never having designed the system, are also not responsible for and cannot change the system. Unfortunately, when the system fails to produce as expected, the systems designers blame the employees instead of accepting blame for their own mistakes. Returning to the cake metaphor, if a cake doesn't taste good, is it the fault of the ingredients or the person who created the recipe? It's always the recipe's fault.

Just like cake ingredients do precisely what is expected of them, regardless of what you mix them with, workers will also do exactly what is expected of them. When a manager, or rather a systems designer, sees that the system is not producing as intended, a choice must be made. Either re-tool the system to deliver as intended, or scream, holler, and blame the system for not magically producing what the designer failed to create a system capable of producing. Too often, screaming and hollering are chosen. Unlike a machine, which is immune to screaming and hollering, humans can experience fear. Fear for their jobs, for their income, for their benefits, for their futures. And fear causes the response we know all too well, lies. 

Humans will lie to the manager, aka the system designer, to tell him what he wants to hear. The system is still not producing as intended; however, now the manager is none the wiser. So the fault is with the lying humans, correct? Wrong. Managers who are not willing to take responsibility for the poor system they designed often do the only thing they can to preserve their fragile egos. They fire those who tell them the truth. The rest of the workers quickly realize that the emperor prefers the illusion of grand clothing despite the fact everyone can see he is naked (I bet you didn't realize that story was about lousy management, did you?).

Now, we are getting to the real meat of the issue. A system that does not produce as intended will continue to deliver the only thing of which it is capable: garbage. And nobody buys trash. These companies ultimately fail, costing not only the workers but also the system designers, their livelihoods. Granted, a larger system takes longer to fail than a smaller one. Sometimes large systems can eke out a miserable existence for some time, such as Sears. You also see this with banks taken over by the FDIC or police departments taken over by the US Justice Department. Other notables would be Yahoo and Blockbuster Video, both of which ended up selling for pennies on the dollar. 

The only remedy is honesty at the systems designer level. If given a chance, that is, if fear is removed from the equation, workers will be honest. They will indicate precisely where the system is failing. Good managers know to listen. Good managers enlist the help of workers to revise and improve the systems in which they work. Two heads are better than one, after all. The workers are more incentivized to help fix the system than anyone else, but too often, managers refuse to listen. To those who say it cannot be done on a large or small scale, Toyota and Mitsubishi are two companies that listen to workers well. Lincoln Electric in Ohio is another multi-national example based in the US. It's being done all over by companies that are thriving.

I write all of this mostly as a warning to both managers and workers. If you work within a culture of fear, your employer is failing. It is only a matter of time. Workers should face up to this fact and seek other arrangements for earning their living. Managers should face up to this fact and fix their systems before the market puts you out of business.

In anticipation of those who will point out that some workers will lie no matter what and sometimes it is the fault of the worker, I agree entirely. However, W. Edwards Demings, one of the great designers of business systems, attributed this to 6% of the problem. The other 94% is the fault of the system. You are welcome to focus on fixing 6% of the problem. Businesses that survive and thrive, businesses that sell frosted cakes, focus on the 94%.

Which will you be?