It's Not My Fault... Fear & Blame at Work

Our 24|7 news cycle seems quite good at reminding us that with every tragic event there are two key questions: what should we fear and who is to blame when something goes wrong. We are bombarded by these emotions through virtually every social media channel. What to fear and who to blame polarizes our political landscape. It causes otherwise rational folks to turn on their neighbor. When fear becomes part of a cultural norm, anyone who thinks differently, dresses differently or believes differently becomes suspect and cannot be trusted. It rots our civility. 

It is likely that our staff bring this heightened sense of fear and blame to the workplace. If we are not thoughtful in our leadership, we can naively contribute to these negative emotional triggers and create an environment at work where trust and collaboration are replaced by fear and blame. Trust and fear cannot co-exist in the same place. Neither can blame and collaboration. Fear overpowers trust every time. Blame destroys collaboration.

Here are 5 ways we may be eroding trust as leaders - and without meaning to, creating an environment of fear and blame:

  1. Results Only Focus. Managers who are too focused on simply assigning work and measuring results may create cultures of fear. 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.
  2. Meetings to Prepare for Meetings. Be careful that pre-meetings do not become the norm. This behavior is often rampant in large organizations but even impacts small businesses. Presentations, proposals, new ideas and other subjects must be reviewed with supervisors, 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.
  3. Too many Rules. 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.
  4. How We Address Failure. When fear and blame become part of the work environment, leaders talk about collaboration and out-of-the-box thinking but no one takes them seriously. People are generally not afraid of failure, they’re afraid of blame. Between demands for instant solutions, ample media coverage of executives being pilloried for mistakes and suffocating regulations, this has become understandable.
  5. Cover Your Backside Documentation. When fear creeps into the workplace, email volume grows. Emails are cc’ed and bcc’ed, printed and filed away. Bosses are copied on ordinary communication. This “cover your backside” documentation process erodes productivity.  As a result of fear-based emotions linked to blame, staff shift their energies from the interest of the group towards self-preservation. Proving you're not to blame is more important that contributing to the solution.

Fear and blame are the ultimate culture killers. When fear and blame creep into the company culture, the organization’s performance suffers. 

It’s not always a major incident that thrusts fear and blame into the limelight. Fear slows organizations down, causes hesitation, drives stress, and keeps individuals from reaching their potential. Fear and blame lead to dissatisfaction and employees become disengaged. Total productivity for the organization as a whole becomes less than the sum of the individual parts.

Eliminating fear is all about building trust relationships at work. The more we can trust each other and work together, the more effective we’re going to be. We as leaders simply need to be mindful that our staff are surrounded by the noise of fear and blame every day. They simply can’t escape it outside of work. At the office, we must find a way to get a signal of trust through all that noise - not amplify the fear.