Do You Work in a Culture of Fear and Loathing?

Be afraid. According to some press reports, the NSW Ambulance Service is in trouble – as one headline put it: “Ambos in culture of fear and loathing” (Sun-Herald Aug 5, 2007). I don’t know about you but that makes me very worried about ever needing an ambulance.

I know that ambulance officers often have to work in treacherous and dangerous conditions to access and attend to their patients. But do I want to put my life in the hands of people who say they are living in fear before they even go out on the road? That puts my amygdala on alert as if I am in real danger when I’m not even physically threatened, I’m simply reading the newspaper!

The article I am looking at in The Sun-Herald described a leaked copy of the NSW Ambulance Services 2007 internal culture survey as “a grim portrait of chronically poor morale and employees who feel undervalued, restricted in how they go about their work and disengaged from decision-making processes.”

Whether the article is accurate or not, I wondered how many employees in any industry or profession in any part of the world feel like that? I think I know the answer and it’s a scary monster.

While thinking about this, I read another piece that described research by YouGov in the UK that added fuel to my amygdala’s smoldering fire.

46% of respondents to that survey said that their bosses did not know what they were doing and of those respondents, nearly two thirds said that this made them frustrated and angry.

Whoa! Is this what our people are feeling? Our team members? Our colleagues?

And are we letting frustrated and angry people deal with our clients, fellow employees, their friends and families? What damage are they potentially doing? Are they committed to our strategy, working fearlessly, to their full capacity, giving 100% to their work? How are they treating our customers? In the same way that they think they’re being treated by their bosses?

And if retention is a big issue for us, could any of this be a contributing factor?

I thought I should stop reading as I got hammered by even more research on the topic: because next came the August 2007 edition of AIM publication Management Today. It reported that BSI Consulting found that workers in Australia who felt underutilized were less likely to stay in their current role. Specifically 56.3% felt that decisions were being made without consultation …do you sense a theme running here?

Deliberate autocracy?

I stopped reading and started reflecting. From what people say to me in my workshops and during presentations, I think that most managers who make decisions without consultation are not usually and deliberately excluding other input. I am sure that it is not their intention to create a culture of ‘fear and loathing’. But of course, intentions are not often reported, only perceptions of what actually happens.

I think that all too often, managers too are simply afraid: afraid they haven’t got the time to wait for the answers because nothing will get done or deadlines won’t be met; afraid that the answers they might challenge their views; afraid of having to deal with multiple points of view, afraid of showing any vulnerability or perceived weakness. In other words, The Almond Effect®. Simply reacting negatively without thinking. Is this you?

Patterns: good, bad and the ugly

We live our lives by following patterns. Once patterns form, it is easy to just go with the flow. Following patterns requires minimum effort, so we keep doing them. Inevitably, we perfect them – even the bad ones. That’s what our habits are – they are driven off the back of the least brain effort and heavily influenced by what it takes to keep our amygdalae quiet – to not feel threatened or discomforted.

Sometimes one of the hardest things we have to do is to slow down and take the time to reflect on our patterns, for example: how are we treating our people? Are we following the good intentions and practices that we started with? Or have we let the pressures and fears in our own lives take over – and this can mean both at work and at home?

Take control of your patterns before they control you

Unless we notice what’s happening to us and take control of any negative or unhelpful feelings we run the risk that over time, or even overnight, work pressures (fewer people, reduced resources, greater time pressures, increased complexity), and home issues, get out of proportion. Then our limbic brain (feelings and emotions) starts managing our behaviours and we stop thinking, we just react.

In no time at all, the patterns are embedded. For example, we stop even considering whether to consult or not when we have to make decisions. We can usually justify our position (at least to ourselves) but people feel left out and worse still, feel afraid to raise issues of concern let alone innovation. And because people don’t say anything, managers stop consulting but of course, have to keep deciding.

Then one day you don’t have anyone to decide anything for and the feared consequences of consulting come back, with interest. Your people did not feel engaged, so they left and nothing can get done anyway. Your worst fears are realized.

Are you waiting for the press report?

Don’t wait until an internal cultural survey is done and the results leaked to the press!

Review your own decision-making behaviours right now as you read this article and also review the decision-making patterns of your staff. How much consultation should be taking place? Is taking place? What is the impact on staff morale? What do your staff feel about the way decision-making happens in your area of responsibility and accountability?

Ask too: are you retaining good staff? What do the exit interviews tell you? What do the decision-making practices in your area have to do with this? What decision-making behaviours are you role-modelling? At work? At home – after all, your kids are future decision-makers.

Consult and engage but you still have to decide

Of course I am not saying that you need to consult on everything. Clearly business would be held up if you consulted on every issue, every time. And it’s not about passing the buck. What I am suggesting is that good leaders consult, engage and then they decide. They lead!

Most people need to feel engaged in the main game and strategic direction. I bet you do. It is when people are not feeling engaged that they often say they are not consulted. Without care and attention, this may well be the start of the slippery slope to a culture of fear and indeed loathing.

Manage that almond

So ask the review questions I suggested. Don’t let your amygdala thwart that process with fears of lack of time or finding out the truth. It may bring about the very things that you fear.

You know that you can override your fears. Your amygdala’s role is to keep you safe from harm – real life threatening physical harm. It’s misfiring (The Almond Effect®) when it’s holding you back from doing what you know to be the most effective and productive thing to do at work even though it’s emotionally demanding.

Hopefully it’s pretty rare for a conversation with your employees to be life-threatening so reset your amygdala’s alarm button. And don’t worry about even doing that – you can never turn it off permanently – it will always be there to alert you to the real threats to your survival.