Top 10 Signs You’re In a Fear-Based Workplace


Dr. W. Edwards Deming always said we need to drive out fear from organizations, as point 8 of the 14 Points said:

“Drive out fear, so that everyone may work effectively for the company.”

Too many organizations, including hospitals, are driven by fear. This is counterproductive and harmful. You can't implement Lean in a fear-based culture, as instilling fear in employees runs counter to the “Respect for People” principles. MSNBC and BusinessWeek bring us this article, “Ten signs you work in a fear-based workplace.

When people are fearful, they don't speak up, they don't question the boss, and they feel hamstrung to do the right thing if they fear getting in trouble. When people fear being punished or looked down upon for failure, they can't take risks that lead to kaizen, and they certainly can't take risks necessary to redesign whole systems.

You can get more detail and examples in the article, but their top 10 signs are:

  1. Appearances are everything.
  2. Everyone is talking about who's rising and who's falling.
  3. Distrust reigns
  4. Numbers rule
  5. And rules number in the thousands
  6. Management considers lateral communication suspect
  7. Information is hoarded
  8. Brown-nosers rule.
  9. The Office' evokes sad chuckles, rather than laughs
  10. Management leads by fear

I like the summary paragraph article, it's hard to say it better:

Chief executives know in their hearts that smart people, set loose to solve big problems, are responsible for every success and innovation industry has ever seen. Fear-trampled employees don't do a thing for your business. Still, management by fear is a hard habit to break, because fear-whipped underlings don't squawk. Meanwhile, your competitors may be hiring your best talent away and stealing market share while you make it easy for them to do so. Those meek, submissive, broken-down employees might blossom in your rival's trust-based culture. Do you really want to find out?

Do you find fear a barrier to your Lean efforts? What are you doing to drive out fear in your organization, to build trust and collaboration? What are the biggest symptoms of fear in your organization?? Feel free to share your stories… you can always type “Anonymous” and a fake email address if you are fearful of your comment getting you in trouble with the boss.

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Mark Graban
Mark Graban is an internationally-recognized consultant, author, and professional speaker, and podcaster with experience in healthcare, manufacturing, and startups. Mark's new book is The Mistakes That Make Us: Cultivating a Culture of Learning and Innovation. He is also the author of Measures of Success: React Less, Lead Better, Improve More, the Shingo Award-winning books Lean Hospitals and Healthcare Kaizen, and the anthology Practicing Lean. Mark is also a Senior Advisor to the technology company KaiNexus.


  1. Fear is by itself not the real problem, rather it is a symptom. The list is valid for looking for a fear based organization, and I have been in some in the past. But it is short a few items, and sometimes it was not the managers that created it.

    The constant need for consenus building is a form of fear, because no one wants to take action and be held accountable.

    Many teams, small businesses and partnerships face another form of fear, no one will take a stand, for fear they may upset someone else, and it results in breaking up the group. It is this type of fear that often prevents real growth from occurring.

    The reality is that fear is always present in any organization, just when real trust and respect are present, fear is shoved out of the way. I hear that all the time from people about how they respect the people around them and trust them, yet if you look at their actions they prove themselves as fakes. Before you can control fear you have to have trust, but you will never have trust until you respect the other person first. Respecting someone is a choice you make, and most often you have to prove to that person you respect them before they will respect you back. Once mutual respect is present trust builds from it, each person knows that the other one will do the right thing, not the easy one.

    That is why it is the critical central pillar in Ohno’s TPS model, and unfortunately it is the one that gets removed all the time.

  2. This post and topic obviously struck a chord. It was tweeted or “re-tweeted” 41 times (a normal day’s post is tweeted 7 or 8 times). Daily site traffic is the 4th highest of all time (going back to 2005) and is 50% higher than yesterday.

    But yet very few comments. I’m surprised. I’m curious to hear what you think on this topic.

  3. I was asked to remove “Driving Fear Out of the Workplace” (Ryan & Oestreich) from the bookshelf at one organisation where I was employed in a senior HR role. “We don’t need that; there’s no fear around here”.

    The word ‘fear’ conjures up different images for different people. As a child, I was fearful of dogs and heights. (I have managed to overcome both.) But within organisations, fear can manifest itself in very many ways. There was fear in the organisation where I was employed, but few people would have used the word to describe the patterns of behaviour that existed there. However, the unseen outcome had a material effect because creative thought and problem-solving were stifled.

    The complexity of the subject deters me from posting lengthy comment here. However, I would recommend the above book as an excellent source of analysis and solutions.

  4. Great post Mark. I agree whole-heartedly that fear gets in the way of lean efforts.

    I once was involved in a project where everybody was overprocessing to cover up a problem because the VP will make the sh1t hit the fan if things weren’t fixed by a certain time. Cultuarally this shows the shame & blame culture makes people jump through extra hoops because leadership is not at gemba helping people have skills to solve problems or be confortable to have the water level lowered. This problem everybody was covering up for was not even customer-facing!

    As an aside, one thing that makes your blog so valuable is the people that comment. I have just discovered Glyn’s great blog due to his comment!

  5. From the article: “A need to tout the trust and openness in the organization constantly can be another red flag.”

    I moved from a very unhealthy organization to a very healthy one over a year ago, and one of the amazing things I notice is that in the old, fear-based, soul-killing environment, I regularly heard things I completely agreed with. It just wasn’t practiced. They behaved the opposite, but of course “saying what someone wants to hear” works both ways. It was one of the most frustrating aspects of the work environment.

    Now I sometimes hear trust and other positive management issues discussed, such as in annual staff meetings that review basic policies, but it’s truly amazing to see it in practice. If I want you to do as I do, I don’t have to say it nearly as much.

    Also from the article: “People who tell my boss what he doesn’t want to hear are people who get laid off at the end of the quarter.”

    One of the best things that ever happened to be was being downsized out of an organization that claimed to practice Lean, and was implementing some tools, but completely removed the “Respect for People” element from Lean, making their attempts L.A.M.E. at best. They were actually complete wastes of time and energy: there is no point in building information-sharing tools when information is hoarded, secret policies are in use by individuals, and being the “only one” who can solve a problem is rewarded.

    I would have used “Dilbert” rather than “The Office” in #9, but other than that, it hits the bullseye.

    • I am not a supervisor or lead employee but had the opportunity to initiate what is known as “Moonshine” in Lean lingo. The staff in my department will soon be trading chairs with each other in order to experience ‘ a walk in the other’s shoes. When the idea was shared with my coworkers it was met with a few comments but the majority stood in stoney silence. I can not help feeling disappointed but am grateful for management (who listened) and the few staff who embraced the idea. Trust is an even bigger issue in an unstable economy where people are out of work. I guess I’m just old enough and with enough work experience to not fear change, risk or even joblessness if it leads to understanding and GROWTH.

  6. Unfortunately, our healthcare network has 10 out of 10 and is clearly driven by fear, even though we espouse innovation and creativity. Name, blame and shame rule the day.

  7. Our hospital department just had a meeting where any suggestions were cut off as “irrelevant” to the matter at hand- the discussion regarding our incompetence and the news that three errors- ina place where a number of discrimination charges have been filed lately due to unfair discipline and a “satisfaction survey” revealed the lowest scores ever seen,wil get you fired. There is a kaisen planned and the participants were chosen by management- the biggest asskissers, who always get to attend anything, of course were chosen- one an established asskisser, the other hired a MONTH ago- what a freaking joke. Another new hire was given a supervisor position over a 20 year employee- only new hires are trained in areas some of us have waited years to be chosen to learn, even though it is highly unusual not to train staff in these areas- asskissers and new blood get everything and instead of amending the repeated complaint of favoritism they threaten us so badly ever since the survey that its pretty much a given that they want to purge us. One of tje smartest people was bullied so badly he has filed one heck of a lawsuit and is winning! Six sigma will be disgraced at this hospital. The errors are astounding- 90 percent increase in one year- everyone is paralyzed by fear. Nobody is going to be invited to participate in improving except the same brown nosers and we aren’t going to help because we know they will cut our jobs. Any advice?

    • Hi – is your hospital doing “Six Sigma” or “Lean Six Sigma” or “Lean Sigma?”

      I’m truly sorry to hear you are going through all of that. There’s no excuse for behavior like that, even if “Lean” has nothing to do with it.

      In the Lean approach, we listen to employees and we’re fact-based and data-driven. With Lean, there’s no room for butt-kissers and there’s no excuse for saying ideas aren’t welcome.

      I don’t know what your hospital’s doing, but it doesn’t sound good. I don’t know what advice to give you, other than to not stick your neck out, as to not get into trouble. Or you can hopefully find a position at a hospital where the Lean approach (a combination of “continuous improvement” and “respect for people” as Toyota describes it) is the norm, a hospital like ThedaCare in Wisconsin, the subject of the book “On the Mend“.

  8. Hard to believe that you can blame the methodology. This is where Lean, Six Sigma and other continuous improvement methodologies get a bad rap. They can’t be responsible for fundamental management issues. Did not read anything that points to Six Sigma as the problem.

    Hard to swallow your response on this one Mark. Insinuating that Lean would be different is out of line.

    • I wasn’t trying to insinuate that, Joe. I’m not in a position to defend Six Sigma from what the last commenter said, as Six Sigma is not my background…

      I agree that it sounds like a hospital that’s just ridiculously out of control, I’m not blaming Six Sigma. Maybe I should have made that more clear.

      I do believe, strongly, that Lean provides much more guidance on the people side of things than Six Sigma does. Not saying Six Sigma is bad… how would you articulate the “Six Sigma” approach to people?

  9. I don’t disagree with you on the people thing about Six Sigma. Successful companies such as Xerox that utilize “Lean Sigma” (I think it is predominately Six Sigma) receive other team training for their Black Belts. Six Sigma is not lacking in that area it is non-existent. It takes strong management, Welch, Bossidy, etc to make it work. It would be interesting to see failure and success rates of Six Sigma that had additional team training as part of their culture. I think I know the answer.

    That is one of the reasons I took offense to the Six Sigma issues raised. It is a problem solving methodology and not a culture. Heck, one of the reasons I like it is that it does not try to be everything. It is what it is, a sophisticated tool-set.

    • Thanks for the comment, Joe. Whenever there’s a big “program” going on, there’s a risk that anything that happens is lumped into that program, whether it’s decisions or management behavior.

      There’s nothing in Six Sigma that says formally “don’t listen to your employees” or “play favorites.” I should have pointed that out (but didn’t think that needed to be said either).

  10. Yeah Mark, that’s the danger, Lean or Six Sigma or anything really.

    No good blaming the philosophy or the tools if the management just don’t ‘get it’.

    The other thing to watch (and you have discussed it) is consultants who have to sell something to get a paycheck. The ones who rebrand their work as “Lean” or “Six Sigma” or whatever and then stifle the development of a culture because they want to keep the client dependent on them – for example, for intellectual property or even just management advice (which really should be coming from the shop floor staff).

    I’m happy that Lean and Six Sigma are out in the world, able to be modified in an ‘open source’ kind of way. We should all contribute to them through our experience of them.

    And I’m always glad that deep in the wellspring that fed Lean and Six Sigma is Deming. His philosophies and sermons are what keep people in our field honest and inspired.

    Management by fear, by campaign, by targets and so on are all bad, and these alone are much of the ‘root cause’ of delivering poor service – yet little is understood of the ‘root cause’ of these practices.

  11. Congratulations! The company I work for has succeeded! 10-10.  Something that stuck with me was information hoarding.  

    The company recently started taking work from its 1099 folks and giving the work to non-experienced interns who work for free.  

    Suddenly, practically all the 1099 guys can’t be found when said intern needs help. Since this is a small ‘company’ there are 4 1099s who work there.  

    One was just hired away by a rival. 2 others are going back to school and another just opened his own business- in the same line of work that he was doing for the ‘company’.  

    Luckily, I got off the  Titanic.  

    Excellent blog. Really appreciate it.  


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