CNN Head Jeff Zucker Doesn’t Realize There’s a Culture of Fear at CNN?


Back in May, I saw news reports about the head of CNN, Jeff Zucker: “CNN boss Zucker shocked by staffer's fearful question.”

Back when I worked for big companies, I had to be an audience member for many “all hands” meetings – either all hands at a local site or, as technology evolved, “all hands in the company” via video technology. There are times where co-workers and I would fantasize about what hard-hitting question we'd ask if we were completely honest and brave.

Well, some guy, James Curry (a producer) did exactly that at a CNN town hall meeting. Click the image below to view the video via the NY Post:

Zucker CNN Fear Video

The question (the FIRST one posed by Anderson Cooper) was:

“I'd like to know how do we stop managers at all levels from from being afraid of you? It seems everyone is on pins and needles when you give guidance about a particular area.

The bottom line is managers seem to fear you and act very strange when you're around. How do we alleviate this seemingly rising culture at CNN?”

Well, that wasn't a “softball” question to start with. Yikes. There's nervous laughter (or just laughter) in the audience of CNN employees. I wonder if Cooper (or somebody) chose that question to start off with because there IS a real problem with the culture at CNN?

Zucker squirms uncomfortably in his chair and, instead of thanking the person for the question, the first words out of his mouth could be construed at vaguely threatening:

“Is James Curry here in Atlanta?”

Curry doesn't scream out to announce his presence (was Zucker going to bring him up on stage?). Cooper says that he's there and Zucker asks if they can get a shot of him on camera. Yikes. That's sort of intimidating and retaliatory. “We can't find him,” says a woman off camera.

The nervous “I'm thinking of what to say” laughter now comes from Zucker, who looks a bit blindsided and put on the spot.

Zucker says:

“One of the things I always want to emphasize, more than anything, I don't want there to be anyone to feel like that. What I want is for people to push back on me.”

There already seems to be a disconnect. If Curry is correct in his assessment that there's a culture of fear, people likely are NOT going to speak up or push back. Something in Zucker's everyday actions might not be lining up with those words.

Zucker continues:

“What I like more than anything is for people to tell me I'm wrong and I think if people who actually do know me and have been through that with me will recognize that.”

It's the “you don't know me” defense — so, that's either Zucker's fault, as the leader. It's possible that Zucker is creating a culture of fear, or it's possible that he's stepped into an existing culture of fear and that people are reacting to him in a way that's based more on “old wounds” created by past leaders.

Zucker says something that seems humble, that he throws out a lot of ideas and “half of them are crazy and you should ignore.”

Zucker also sounds a bit reflective when he says that he needs to be more aware that when he, as a leader, says “I like something” that people are going to react and all rush to try to create more of that thing he likes in ten different shows. Maybe they jump and scurry like that because there's a culture of fear?

Zucker doesn't want people to be afraid to push back. So, I'd be curious to see how he reacts (what he says and his body language) when somebody does disagree, push back, or ignore one of his ideas. “Jeff, that's a crazy idea” — what response does that get?

He says, “At the end of the day, if I feel strongly about something, I'm going to say ‘let's do it.'” Ah, the power of top-down leadership. Maybe that's what creates the culture of fear. “But I want to encourage people to NOT feel like James does and not feel like just because I say something, you have to do it.” Hmmm. I guess you don't have to do it… unless Zucker DOES say you have to do it.

According to LinkedIn, James Curry DOES still work at CNN. At least he didn't get fired for his question.

As Zucker barks “go to the next question,” Anderson Cooper says “that was a really great answer” with a chuckle, as if he's pretending to be sycophant.

Here's another good blog post on the Zucker question and his reaction.

Do you see a “culture of fear” in your organization? Are people brave enough to call their leaders out on this, publicly or privately? What do you do to make sure the ACTIONS of leaders line up with what they say in terms of wanting people to speak up?

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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. Is it an indicator of a culture of fear if as I was sitting here pondering my comment I had to stop and think whether it was safe to post my experience because our CEO might find it?

    As a culture change and improvement agent in my organization, I view it as part of my job to challenge the other leaders of the company to align their actions with the words that come out of their mouth. Usually I would try to use logical discussion and what I would consider nemawashi-lite actions to not only gain support of other leaders, but to gauge the validity of my own perspective. I would try and walk them through a logical progression of their decision or reaction, hoping to lead them to the light.

    Knowing our CEO’s personality, it is never a good idea to call him out in public, so typically the conversations happened in private or at least in the privacy of the executive meeting. During a lot of these – lets call them interventions – the same phrase that Zucker said would rear its ugly head: “At the end of the day, its my job as a leader to see the vision and make a decision to move forward.”

    While there is certainly a time and place for leadership, this was the default answer when someone didn’t agree with what was in his head. After these discussions would get past the confrontation point, he would also, like Zucker, say he WANTS to hear these kind of lively disagreements. Sometimes I couldnt help but hang my head in disbelief.

    Again the same Zucker-esque comments would come out: “Just because I said this is what I thought should be done, doesnt mean you had to do it…”. This type of behavior led to a culture on the leadership team of “Whatever you want to do, CEO…”, with leaders waiting for the CEO to tell them his vision so they could execute it. All while the CEO was getting frustrated that his leaders weren’t leading and executing their visions.

    Imagine what the trickle down effects to the organization was if this was the culture of the “tight knit leadership team”. At some points it felt like the whole organization was on pause because it wasn’t sure if what it was doing was going to be “Ok with the CEO”. Me personally, it doesn’t discourage me from speaking up, even if it means a little career suicide. But I am still relatively young and foolish! :)

    Thanks Mark for the great post, I wish more CEO’s and leaders would read with an open mind and heart.

    • Thanks for the comment, Chris.

      Yeah, sadly if you have to ask if it’s safe to post a comment or to speak freely about your CEO, it probably is not. Good call on remaining anonymous…

  2. Mark, thanks for the thought provoking post. I would like to flip the question around if I may.

    I think each of us as leaders have had experiences where people have mis understood what we mean to say, or have taken our position alone as a reason to fear us. I had an experience when I was a supervisor still in college where I had been in the process of training an employee and he was having the hardest time learning. Because of this there was always a little tension, and I found that the entire problem stemmed from one phrase I used on the day we met, and he used that as a filter for everything else that I said. Once I figured that out I was able to correct and he became an awesome employee in a short time. Probably not because he changed, but because I became a better and less feared supervisor/trainer.

    How do we as leaders remove the fear? How do we communicate thoughts without them being mandates? What phrases should we avoid?

    I have found some techniques, but really want to hear what you all think.

    • Hi Brandon-

      I agree, people often fear the position as much or more so than the leader. I’ve had to coach CEOs and senior leaders that they might think they’re asking an honest question… but it might get more likely interpreted as a command because of their position and role. Leaders need to be aware of that… and be aware of questions that aren’t really questions, such as “why don’t we do such and such?” That often gets heard as “the CEO told us to do such and such.”

      It takes two to miscommunicate, but I think the onus is on the leader more so.

      I think leaders can’t just say “don’t be afraid,” but they need to demonstrate that it’s OK for people to be brave. GM’s CEO Mary Barra says “speak up for safety” — EVERYTHING she says and does needs to reinforce that people should speak up without fear of retribution.

      • Thanks for your thoughts Mark. The part where you said “Everything she says and does needs to reinforce that people should speak up without fear of retribution” resonated with me. That is so true for all of us.

  3. Mark, great post. One of the most important learnings for myself in growing as a lean leader is recognizing it’s not enough to tell people, “If I’m wrong, push back.” Fear, power dynamics, cultural and socio-eonomic backgrounds and a host of other factors influence employees’ willingness to speak candidly and openly, and– as you correctly point out– the onus is on leadership, by virtue of their positional authority, to create environments where openness is the norm.

    There has been some work on exploring the facets of psychological safety (AHRQ has contributed some, as it’s a crucial component to patient safety [and the foundation for programs like TEAM STEPPS]), but I think more work is needed to educate leaders on their role in creating psychological safety within organizations (and thus promoting open and questioning work environments).


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