Ethics in the Workplace – Fear Based Cultures

The previous blog “Ethics in the Workplace” promised methods by which employees and employers can create an ethical culture. This column analyzes fear based cultures and actions that can be taken to eliminate this major driver of unethical behavior.

Simply put, in a fear based culture an employees’ behavior is principally governed by fear. Often, they fear the consequences of making mistakes or for failing to carry out the wishes of a superior. Employees are paralyzed by fear, preventing them from acting in accordance with their values. As a result, they fail to make clear headed decisions because they dread heavy-handed consequences.

Instead of performance motivated by achievement, thoughts of demotion and termination cause them to acquiesce to the wishes of others. Rajeev Behera, CEO of Reflektive reminds us that fear based cultures are more common than you might think.

A 2014 article by D. Brewer “Leadership and Organizational Behavior” echoes that fear based cultures are commonplace. “We have come to believe that structured human organizations are built and maintained primarily on the foundation of the negative, defensive and we believe, repulsive human emotion of fear.”

The Impact on Ethics

Much has been rightfully written about the effects of fear on productivity. My focus centers on the impact of fear on ethical conduct within an organization. I learned (the hard way) that fear in an organization strikes in both directions. It is well documented how some organizations intimidate and coerce employees to achieve desired results.

Conversely, a lesser known effect cuts in the opposite direction. Employees who work in fear are reluctant to confront their supervisors. Specifically, they don’t address when the company is not ethically “walking the talk.”

This helps to explain a CFO creating fraudulent financial statements. Likewise, why a bank teller establishes dozens of bogus accounts in response to directives from a supervisor, as others sit silently. People make choices contrary to their values when driven by the fear of organizational consequences.

Deloitte (2009) observed “one of the biggest risk factors for companies today revolves around culture. If employees, the eyes and ears of the company, are afraid to raise issues or challenge management, the company is disadvantaged if not doomed.”

Steps to Remedy Fear in Organizations

Here are some things that can be done to minimize the impact of fear in a firm:

  1. Ethical leadership. The University of Texas- Austin Ethics Unwrapped Program concludes “no single factor has a bigger impact on the ethicality of a firm culture than the personal examples set by firm leaders.”
  2. Ask. Management should create a forum to ask about the presence of fear, no different than other cultural components which are routinely surveyed.
  3. Two-way communication is essential. Encouraging two-way communication is a way to build trust and allow employees to voice their concerns.
  4. Values and expected behaviors must be specifically defined and redefined. (Kuppler, 2013) A company should declare their values and ask their stakeholders to hold them accountable.

A fear based culture throws gasoline on the fire of unethical conduct. It causes individuals to suppress their own values rather than face potential negative consequences. It also prevents individuals from raising ethical issues for fear of reprisal.

To address the existence of a fear based culture, leadership must ask the necessary questions. A de-identified survey can assist in this determination. Action must be taken if the results are affirmative.

Please share your comments and experiences concerning the ethical ramifications of a fear based culture.

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