There are two types of workplace culture: Fearful or Fearless. Which is yours? Before you answer, let me explain the differences between both.

Fear is one of the most pervasive emotions at work. Only three in 10 employees believe that their opinions count at work, according to a Gallup survey. Simply put, why would people speak up or contribute if no one cares? That’s the problem with fearful cultures.

Psychological safety is critical for people to feel comfortable raising questions, concerns, and ideas without fear of personal repercussions. However, building a fearless culture takes more than that. There are more elements – like rules, rituals, or decision-making – that can encourage people to act from a place of fear rather than courage.  

In this post, I will describe what separates fearless company cultures from fearful ones, why you should care, and how to build a courageous culture.

How Fear Shapes Company Culture

There’s a common theme when I ask people about what’s preventing them or their teams from doing the best work of their lives: fear

People are afraid of making mistakes, of being vulnerable at work, of their bosses, of being judged by others, of being punished by trying new ways of working, or of rigid processes such as performance reviews. The list goes on and on.

Fear gets in the way and can paralyze people. Rather than trying to give their best, they adapt to conform. However, fearlessness doesn’t mean getting rid of fear – we need this vital emotion that alerts us of potential threats. Actually, when we’re about to take risks or make something for the first time, it’s natural (and perfect) to feel afraid.

Fearlessness is about acting despite our fears, not because we aren’t afraid. Fearless leaders examine and confront their fears; they show courage under fire.

Eric Barker, the author of Barking Up the Wrong Tree, explains how US Navy SEALs benefit from the power of “cognitive reappraisal,” regulating their emotional response to an external stimulus – they tell themselves a different story about what’s happening.

Fear is a signal about something that’s about to happen. As former Navy SEAL Brandon Webb wrote, “Fear is no illusion. Fear is real. Convince yourself that it isn’t, and you’re already dead.” Fear is a battle that takes place in your mind —  by confronting fear, you make it work in your favor. “This is fear,” Webb used to reflect before imminent battle action, “And I’m about to use it.” 

So, why does this matter to workplace culture?

Fearful cultures, unlike fearless ones, get the worst out of people.

Silence and fear are interconnected. The more afraid people feel, the less they participate. This creates a vicious cycle where people silence their ideas, creating groupthink, disengagement, and even unethical behaviors, as shown in the chart below.

fearless cultures: the cost of silence spectrum

What Separates Fearless Cultures from Fearful Ones

Most organizations want to be more agile, adaptive, and innovative. However, they overlook their existing collective wisdom and try to find the solution outside. Take the COVID-19 crisis, for example. It created an abrupt shift to remote work and it will take years to understand its impact. Most companies adapted more successfully than they thought – even remote work detractors.

As Unilever’s CEO, Alan Jope, recently shared, “We’ve discovered a new responsiveness in Unilever that I wish we had unlocked years ago, but it’s taken this crisis to do that.”

Most organizations don’t lack ideas, talent, or resources. What they lack is a conducive culture that taps into that untapped power. Fear-driven cultures kill initiative, passion, and innovation; they force people to lower their bar rather than raising that of the organization.

Fearful cultures are control-driven, rewarding individualism. Fear is the tool of choice for leaders who apply a divide-and-conquer approach, driving anxiety and allowing politics to become more important than the work itself. No surprise, people aren’t aligned on what they want to achieve.

People suffer when working in a fearful organization where information is power, and silos reinforce division over collaboration. Fearful cultures are cruel, driven by perfectionism and analysis-paralysis.

Culture doesn’t go wrong overnight, but as a result of systematic harmful behaviors. Many people saw the Theranos’ scam coming. Fear-driven secrecy was the reason no one in the company spoke up. CEO Elizabeth Holmes created silos, intimidated employees, and turned confidentiality into a weapon to keep investors and partners in the dark.

Fearless cultures, on the other hand, are autonomy-driven, giving people room to make decisions, challenge the status quo, and experiment. Autonomy and accountability are two sides of the same coin; people are encouraged to make mistakes to learn and grow.

Employees working at fearless companies are more self-aware and passionate. They’re taught to live by the company purpose; to choose what’s right over what’s easy. Fearless cultures are human, agile, and experimental.

Fearless cultures are default to open, as Slack operates. Its employees are encouraged to discuss concerns or ideas transparently. CEO Stewart Butterfield prefers open channels over direct messages; he wants his decisions to be visible to everyone, always welcoming feedback.

Slack has various channels that encourage open, candid conversations. The #beef-tweets one is for employees to air their “beefs” with the company’s own product, looking for opportunities for improvement. The #exec-ama channel invites people to ask any questions to the leadership team. Slack believes that participation is critical for success.

No company is perfect; the ones I share as examples are not 100% courageous but tend to be more aligned with the characteristics of fearless cultures. Also, workplace culture is something dynamic. Companies are continually evolving; sometimes for the better, others for the worse. Also, within each company there are multiple subcultures that can be more or less fearful than the overall culture.

What Is A Fearless Workplace Culture

In a fearless organization, people lead from a place of courage; they are encouraged to choose doing the right thing over what’s easy. The culture doesn’t just feel safe for people to be themselves, but also promotes courageous conversations.

Most importantly, a fearless culture promotes participation and collaboration. It liberates the untapped power of a company or team.

A fearless culture precedes positive results:

  • Companies with a strong culture perform 30%-200% better than their competitors (McKinsey)
  • Organizations that live by their purpose are 30% more innovative (Deloitte)
  • Being fearless and having a purpose increases corporate ability to transform by 84% and increases customer loyalty by 80% (EY)

Three key characteristics define fearless cultures:

  • Alignment: “We share a future”
  • Belonging: “We are fearless together”
  • Agility: “We move smarter and faster”

1. Alignment: “We share a future.”

Fearless organizations don’t just have a purpose; they live by it, even if it costs them.

When CVS’s CEO first announced that the retailer would stop selling tobacco products, everyone thought he was crazy. Why get rid of a $2 billion source of revenue? For Larry Merlo, the answer was straightforward – selling tobacco made no sense for a company whose purpose is: “Helping people on their path to better health.”

The decision wasn’t just courageous, but also a smart move in the long run. By living by its purpose, CVS encouraged people to quit smoking: (38% of its customers became more likely to stop buying cigarettes altogether). Also, customers rewarded the retailer by spending more money in the store, thus offsetting the potential revenue loss.

In fearless cultures, people are aligned because they’re clear about the impact they want to create (beyond the organization). In the Culture Design Canvas, the Core represents the key blocks used to define the shared future: Purpose, Values, Priorities, and Behaviors that are rewarded or punished.

2. Belonging: “We are fearless together:”

In fearless organizations, people don’t just feel safe but also act fearlessly. Strong interpersonal relationships are critical to promote courageous conversations that help address issues, improve how the team is working, and develop new solutions.

Originality is fragile and very few organizations realize this as well as Pixar does. The company practices radical candor to turn “ugly babies” into box office successes. During a braintrust, the team in charge of developing a new movie shares the work in progress to get feedback from their colleagues. At those events, no one pulls punches to be polite.

Most movies look ugly, according to Ed Catmull. Through courageous conversations – that are meant to help the work grow, not attack people – Pixar has created a culture of creativity and collaboration.

Fearless cultures create a strong sense of belonging, bringing people together. In the Culture Design Canvas, the Emotional Culture includes the following blocks: Psychological Safety, Feedback, and Rituals.

3. Agility: “We move faster, and smarter.”

In fearless cultures, rules and processes don’t get in the way. They understand that being agile is a mindset driven tranformation, not process-oriented. Fearless organizations treat people like grown-ups rather than telling them what to do; they have fewer, simple, and flexible rules.

At IKEA, the “Never with the empty hands” norm encourages people to take action and act like owners. If something is out of place, disorganized, or broken, employees are encouraged to take care of it. It doesn’t matter what one’s job description, title, or area is; when people see something needs fixing, they take action into their own hands.

IKEA’s “Simplicity is a virtue” principle doesn’t just define its approach to furniture design, but its operating system. Complicated rules paralyze people – IKEA believes that excessive planning and control generate more bureaucracy. The Swedish retailer tells its employees to “Let simplicity and common sense guide your planning.”

To increase agility, Fearless Cultures put mindset over process. In the Culture Design Canvas, the Functional Culture includes the following blocks: Meetings, Decision-Making, and Rules and Norms.


So, is your culture fearful or fearless?

In future posts, I’ll share more characteristics of Fearless Cultures, providing additional examples and best practices.

To learn how to design fearless cultures, schedule a free consultation or join our upcoming Build a Fearless Culture online program.

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