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Eradicating a fear-based culture

Whilst the era of flexible working has changed many aspects of the traditional workforce, fear-based work cultures are unfortunately still all too common. Building psychological safety is, instead, paramount, writes Stuart Taylor.

user iconStuart Taylor 17 February 2021 Big Law
Stuart Taylor
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A fear-based culture can be described as an environment where staff are constantly afraid of failure due to the expectation of punishment or negative consequences from leadership. Staff are typically overworked, hypervigilant and reluctant to take risks for fear of slipping up.

In these fragile environments, failure is viewed as unacceptable and individuals must “sprint a marathon” in the pursuit of innovation, competitiveness and bottom-line performance. Yet ironically, these high-intensity, hyper-engaged, fear-driven environments only lead to lost productivity, high staff turnover, absenteeism, distress, and an increased rate of burnout in professionals.

In 2020, burnout levels were at an all-time high across Australia – and we don’t need to rehash why this was the case. Interestingly though, our Australian Workforce Response to COVID-19 survey found that whilst our workload and stress levels increased, our productivity remained largely the same. This indicates that for many people, the response to COVID-19 and its dramatic impact on our working arrangements, was to compensate with hyper engagement – my boss can no longer see that I’m working, so I must prove that I’m working.


Interestingly, and by no coincidence, there was also a discrepancy between leaders’ perceptions of staff’s level of trust versus actual levels reported by staff. In fact, leaders believed 16.5 per cent of their staff’s level of trust in others had decreased due to COVID-19, in comparison to 32 per cent of staff who said their trust in others was lower.

As a result, leaders attempted to compensate for the trust lost due to team virtuality by significantly increasing personal interaction with staff – but our study reported that this left staff feeling “called-out” or “spied-on” and only contributed to creating the fear-based culture that leaders are so desperate to avoid.

The key to overcoming a fear-based culture is leadership trust – which lays the foundation for psychological safety in the workplace. We look at both leadership trust and psychological safety as two separate but related concepts. A high-trust environment will allow staff to think creatively and take risks, but psychological safety means staff understand they will not be punished if something fails or goes wrong. Psychological safety means that, in addition to trust, there is a culture of willingness to experiment, fail, and learn.

Perhaps one of the biggest misconceptions is that creating a culture of trust and psychological safety is more of a “nice-to-do”, rather than something that has a lasting positive impact on an organisation and its people. Contrary to popular belief, psychological safety goes beyond workplace culture and wellbeing and is, in fact, something that can be measured and assessed, and something that impacts your company’s bottom line.

So how can organisations build trust and enable a culture of psychological safety, where employees are resilient and can strive for optimum results while feeling safe to make mistakes?

Lead with compassion

There are a number of ways to build psychological safety in the workplace, but the first of which is having leaders lead with high trust and compassion. Compassion is at the foundation of every high-trust organisation. Without this, establishing psychological safety is not possible.


Communication is key – not only for keeping teams up to date and promoting collaboration and productivity, but for building and maintaining trust between teams and individuals. Aim to communicate through face-to-face interaction frequently and openly. Innovation and creative thinking should be celebrated openly too, even when the outcome is less than what was desired. When this happens, creativity and independence become ingrained in workplace culture. It’s important for leaders to understand that organisations don’t thrive unless people are willing to offer discretionary effort, but a fear-based culture doesn’t allow this.


Educate leadership teams and staff on the concept of psychological safety and what it looks like and seek to understand the benefits that come from establishing psychological safety in the workplace – such as higher staff engagement, productivity, and innovation, reduced stress, lower rates of absenteeism and presenteeism, and an enhanced sense of wellbeing within the organisation, to name a few.


Develop a plan. If psychological safety and leadership trust in your organisation require improvement, what steps can you take to act on this and shift the dial? Consider establishing a set of initiatives over six to 12 months to help build psychological safety and ensure these are tangible and measurable. This could include a new communication strategy to encourage more transparent, frequent communication between leaders and staff, a reward system developed to encourage psychological safety (e.g., rewarding or praising staff for creativity and innovation, even if the desired outcome is not achieved), and encouraging greater discourse around mental wellbeing in the workplace.

Build resilience

Resilience is a learned skill that can be purposefully built and skilfully maintained through a number of positive behaviours and strong lifestyle practices. Resilient people have the ability to effectively navigate challenges and bounce forward after setbacks. But like anything in leadership, resilience starts at the top. Invest in your own resilience and wellbeing so you have the perspective, purpose and energy to hold a position of high trust among your staff. After all, organisations can only thrive if the people who lead them do.

Achieving psychological safety does not mean creating a low standard of performance. Many falsely believe that creating a culture of psychological safety means lowering the bar or creating a “comfort zone” where staff feel content to deliver a lower standard of work. Rather, the opposite is true. Psychological safety enables staff to perform at their best, as they feel confident and supported by leadership to think creatively and take risks, without fear of failure.

Stuart Taylor is the co-founder and chief executive of Springfox.