Posted by: healingtheworkplace | March 22, 2008

Driving Fear Out of the Workplace

Back in the 1990’s, perhaps the hey-day of the Quality Movement, I first came across a book called Driving Fear Out of the Workplace: How to Overcome the Invisible Barriers to Quality, Productivity, and Inn0vation. In the book the authors Kathleen Ryan and Daniel Oestreich describe the effects of fear on workplace culture and the quality of work.

For the most part the Quality Movement in the 1990’s focused on the tools and techniques of quality improvement. Although W. Edwards Demming had made reference to fear in his earlier writing–no-one had bothered to connect the way people were treated in the organization with the quality of work they produced.

When Ryan and Oestreich’s book was first published “executives and managers responded by stating that they weren’t interested in driving fear our of the workplace BUT they were interested in how to keep it and use it more effectively”.

Now-a-days this is called harassment or bullying and its getting a lot of bad press. In fact, based on some recent newspaper articles that I’ve read, it appears the court system in Canada is taking a hard line with managers who are convicted of harassment.

But in the 1990’s I guess this was a relatively common occurance. 

When I first read Driving Fear Out of the Workplace, it made perfect sense. It still does! If employees (everyone in the organization is an employee) are afraid to speak up or speak out quality of work suffers and untold damage is done to the organization on many levels.

In researching the book, Ryan and Oestreich found that people don’t speak up for the following reasons:

  • fear of repercussions
  • nothing will change
  • avoidance of conflict
  • don’t want to be seen as causing trouble

They also found that when fear is part of an organization’s workplace culture problems occur for both the individuals and for the entire organization.

People at all levels are less committed, less motivated and less confident. People tend to hide mistakes and there is an overall loss of creativity, risk-taking, and problem solving. Individuals suffer from anxiety, stress, depression and their careers may be damaged.

To give management some credit Ryan and Oestreich state that “the greatest percentage of intimidating behaviors are committed unconsciously by managers who have no idea how their behavior is affecting others”. Does that excuse them? I don’t think so.

Unfortunately there are abusive managers (they certainly aren’t leaders) around who know perfectly well what they are doing.  

But if you work in an organization that condones such behavior and the risk of speaking out is too great…what can you do?

Ryan and Oestreich have some suggestions which I’m saving for another post.

Take care!



  1. Totally agreed. Fear is the best enemy against innovation, which requires the tolerance of the failures and different opinions.

    Will love to see the suggestions!

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