5 Signs of a Fear-Based Workplace Culture

To create a high-performance work culture, managers must think of themselves as coaches, not compliance officers. In the past century – and even more so in the last decade – the role of the manager has shifted dramatically. Research has proven time and again that to inspire the best work in people, managers must not create cultures of fear.

A fear-based work culture harms the morale of your best employees and ensures workers with room for improvement never reach their full potential. You might not even be aware that your organization promotes a fear-based culture, which is why it's vital to check for the signs right now and take action as needed to educate managers and fix the problem before it's too late.

Here are five signs that your workplace may have a fear-based culture:

1. Employees Are Fleeing Your Company at a Rapid Pace

While employee churn is not necessarily a bad thing –the era of the "lifetime" employee is over and millennials are changing positions every 1-3 years on average – an uptick in the number of employees leaving your company for greener pastures may be a sign of a fear-based work culture.

More often than not, people leave their jobs due to bad management. Instead of blaming market forces or the inability to be competitive with compensation and benefits, look first to see if there is an issue with your managers and their management style.

2. Exit Interviews Suggest Managers Are Not Supportive

Even if employee churn is not trending upward, employee exit surveys can provide valuable information about problems within your company that you may not see otherwise. In a fear-based work culture, an employee may be too scared to share this information until they have their next opportunity lined up and are walking out the door. Don't overreact if only one employee cites fear-based management as a reason for leaving, but if employee after employee is highlighting the same issue, then you have a problem.

3. Your Managers Won't Tell You What Is Going Wrong

Fear-based work cultures sometimes grow when upper management does not give middle management the room to fail. If middle managers feel they are walking on eggshells around senior management, this fear-based culture will most certainly trickle down to individual contributors and more junior managers. You can greatly reduce the level of fear in your company by creating a culture in which risk and failure are embraced.

4. Goals Are Unclear and Your Teams Are Not Aligned

Often, employee fear stems from not knowing exactly what a good job looks like. In many organizations, goals are set once a year and left untouched – even if the business objectives significantly change in the interim. This leaves middle managers and employees scrambling to hit goals that no longer make sense while also achieving new goals that help move the business forward.

Replace your annual reviews with company-wide quarterly check-ins. Doing so will give your managers and employees the chance to review their goals, adjust them, and collaborate on ways to reach their goals in the next 90 days. This will also nudge managers to act more like players or coaches instead of cops.

5. Employees Are Shocked When Annual Performance Reviews Roll Around

In a workplace built on fear, few (if any) managers give good, ongoing feedback to employees. It is quite common for managers who were incredible individual contributors to feel completely lost when promoted to management roles. Managers may not know how to give thoughtful feedback. Instead, they disengage and only share opinions during annual review time, when frustration has built up and it's too late to coach employees to improve. The modern workplace requires a culture of real-time, positive, constructive feedback to ensure employees are performing their best.

If you notice any of these symptoms of a fear-based work culture in your organization, the next step is to focus on addressing management styles, starting at the top. Training managers and leaders to give thoughtful feedback, implementing better feedback processes and technologies, and promoting an improvement-based culture can go a long way in fixing a fear-based culture.

Rajeev Behera is CEO of the performance feedback platform Reflektive.