How to prevent a fear-based work culture

An unsafe work environment can create a culture of fear. So how can you effectively break such a culture of fear as a leader or how do you raise awareness at work? Read it in our blog.

Prevent a fear-based work culture
What do you do when humiliation, inappropriate jokes and sometimes even threats are part of your daily routine at work? According to a survey conducted by market research firm Panelwizard among a thousand employees, 17 percent of employees experience a fear-based culture at work. Moreover, an Image Survey by Intermediair (2020) shows that a bad relationship with the supervisor (which often leads to psychologically unsafe working conditions) is the reason a quarter of highly educated people start hunting for a new job. How do you determine if there is enough psychological safety in your workplace? And what can you do about it as an employee or organisation?

"A high level of psychological safety is vital for the development and performance of organisations"

Psychological safety and fear-based workplace culture

“If by ‘fear-based culture’ you mean that everyone keeps their mouth shut, you are talking about ‘low psychological safety’ in scientific terms,” explains Elmira Nijhuis, who has a PhD on psychological safety in administrative teams at the VU University of Amsterdam. “Psychological safety ensures that people dare to express their opinions and identity and have the well-being of the team in mind,” she adds. 

A situation where people do not dare to express themselves does not immediately lead to transgressive behaviour such as threats, humiliation or inappropriate sexual remarks.The latter, according to Nijhuis, also requires psychopathology (abnormal behaviour) on the part of the leader, as well as a large power distance and few ways for employees to transfer to other departments or different jobs altogether. In these situations, employees also feel they are not allowed to make mistakes, and repeated transgressive behaviour starts to erode the employee’s equality and role as a professional.

The consequences of a workplace lacking in psychological safety

In the case of Bianca Simons, who herself was a victim of a fear-based work culture and now coaches entrepreneurs, her supervisor literally told her she could forget about her permanent contract if she did not do what he expected of her. But cliques, being excluded by colleagues, an unhealthy competitive spirit or high absenteeism can also indicate a workplace lacking in psychological safety, says Simons. 

A fear-based work culture  has a huge impact on people’s well-being, according to Nijhuis. Research shows that low levels of psychological safety at work lead to feelings of gloom, loneliness, suppressed anger and depression. In addition, all studies show a direct relationship between low psychological safety and low work performance, Nijhuis says.

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Preventing a fear-based culture at work

As an individual, it is often difficult to fear-based work culture and encourage psychological safety. Even as a group, this is difficult, something Simons knows from her own experience. “At the time, we tried to tackle it as a team by talking to a confidant,” she says. “However, 90 per cent of the team suddenly decided not to take action – a clear result of a fear-based work culture.”

Nijhuis advises creating more psychological safety with each other. It is important to get to know each other well, maintain good relationships and reflect on the current cooperation together. “If you start regularly thinking the same as a team, psychological safety can deteriorate,” Nijhuis says. “So you have to regularly counteract this by frequently discussing how the collaboration is going.”

Finally, Nijhuis recommends bringing in a confidant to discuss psychological safety. This remains risky, “because it doesn’t always end well with whistleblowers. Nevertheless, according to Nijhuis, having high psychological safety in all teams and organisations is not a ‘soft act’, but vital for the development and performance of organisations and for people’s well-being.

Tackling a fear-based culture with the Qi Index

By working towards a high level of psychological safety, you can drive a safe culture within your organisation. Our Quality of Interaction (Qi Index) helps companies, teams or departments work efficiently to create a culture where everyone can express themselves and where communication is clear and straightforward for everyone.

Not only do improved team dynamics and processes lead to a reduced fear culture, more creativity and a better team culture. It also influences organisational or team performance.

With the Qi Index, you will map your organisation’s strengths and weaknesses and gain insight into which behaviours need to be strengthened and released to achieve the desired culture.

Create a safe working environment today

Looking for the right team training for psychological safety? At Human Insight, we have devised the Quality of Interaction approach to create a working environment for different types of teams based on trust and desirable behaviour.

Want to improve the fear culture at work?

Looking for the right training to tackle fear culture at work and increase psychological safety?

Human Insight offers practical insights and strategic tools to support organisations with complex issues.

Get started with the Qi Index and use our Quality of Interaction approach to work towards a working environment based on trust and desirable behaviour.


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