How can I create a fear-free working environment?

There are two sides to this issue: countering the negatives and promoting the positives. Countering the negatives involves making sure that any events or tendencies which contribute to a culture of fear are strongly and positively dealt with, rather than brushed under the carpet or allowed to fester. Sometimes managers feel reluctant and anxious to tackle such issues and, as a result, they may fudge them. Unfortunately, this is likely to contribute to a culture of fear, as it undermines any sense of security staff may get from the strong leadership example of their manager. If you are serious about creating a workplace free of fear, then clearly it is important to make sure that all such instances are tackled, either as and when they occur or at the earliest suitable opportunity. To pretend they have not happened or to play them down is likely only to contribute further to the problem. While countering the negatives is clearly important, it is also necessary to go beyond this in terms of promoting the positives. This involves making sure there is a clear message to all concerned that bullying and harassment are unacceptable and will not be tolerated. Some managers have tackled this by creating or amending an existing team philosophy document to include a section which acknowledges the existence of bullying and harassment as a problem in the workplace, but also makes it clear that, in this particular workplace, any such behaviour will not be accepted. This is important for two reasons. First, it gives a clear message to anyone who may be tempted to indulge in such behaviour and, as such, this can be a very strong deterrent. Second, having such a statement clearly established also makes it easier for people to challenge unacceptable behaviour. It is easier to refer to a specific clause in a philosophy document or equivalent statement, rather than simply attempt to tackle the issues in a vacuum without the back up of a specific document. If your organisation has a policy on bullying and harassment, this can usefully be referred to in your team philosophy. Promoting the positives also involves looking at what can be done to create a positive and constructive atmosphere in which people feel valued and supported. Much of this involves leading by example: giving praise and positive feedback where they are due and also giving negative feedback in a constructive and helpful way whenever that is also needed. Finally, you may find it helpful to turn the situation on its head in order to gain a staff perspective. That is, imagine that you were an employee in your team. What would you want from your manager in order to feel safe, secure, valued and supported? Are those things currently in place? If not, then this will give you an idea of what needs to be done to promote a more positive atmosphere. And, of course, a good leader will not only imagine from his or her own perspective what staff would welcome in a supportive team atmosphere, but also actually ask them. Consultation on such issues is a very good first step.

Dr Neil Thompson                       

Neil’s website and blog are at

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