fear and toxicity in the workplace healthy workplace Sep 16, 2019
trust .png


Ok so I’ve said a lot about fear-based versus trust-based workplaces, and trust-based sounds a lot better. But what does a trust-based workplace look and feel like, you ask? 

  1. Besides the obvious (we’d all prefer unlimited free time), you feel pretty happy to go to work.  

  2. At work, you feel like you belong to something larger than yourself. 

  3. You feel like you are collaborating and building something important with other people. 

  4. You feel like your opinions are valued and your contributions acknowledged. 

  5. You are comfortable sharing real aspects of your personal life to get support from your co-workers and boss. 

  6. You don't have to open your laptop nights and/or weekends or keep your head in your smartphone just to stay out of trouble.  

  7. You have flexible work hours to accommodate your childcare needs, and/or you telecommute at least two days a week. 

  8. You have Wellness Fridays, morale-building events, and the occasional BBQ with your co-workers.  

  9. Kind, constructive feedback lets you and your whole team know when you are doing a good job and where improvement is needed.  

  10. Management quickly roots out problems and toxic people, either working to train them or moving them along.  

Sounds like Utopia? It doesn't have to be a dream. This could be every business in the world, but it takes a coordinated commitment from everyone (from the individual to top management) to achieve this state of workplace bliss.  

fear .png


On the other side of the coin, the fear-based or toxic workplace, which goes something like this:   

  1. You hate going to work. 

  2. You feel alone and work in a silo. 

  3. You feel disconnected and not included.  

  4. You rarely speak up or share because you fear being yelled at or made to feel stupid. 

  5. You have zero work friends. 

  6. You are expected to put in eight solid hours at work, to log-in after you get home at night, and to work on the weekends. Your phone is always on and you are always on call.  

  7. You miss out on your kid's childhood and quality time with your family, partner, or spouse, causing resentment and frequent arguments. 

  8. You witness people belittling and harassing each other, but you say nothing because you know you’ll be reprimanded or fired for complaining (and you need this job). 

  9. You are constantly being told you aren't enough in a passive-aggressive way. 

  10. Management encourages bullies, workplace gangs, and promotes people who steal ideas, make people feel bad, and harass team members. 

I started with a positive trust-based workplace culture because I’m an optimist and the fear-based/toxic one is depressing.  


I hope the first one, but I know many people are stuck in the second. The rest of us fall somewhere in the middle. 

“A fear-based workplace is a place where fear is the predominant energy. A healthy workplace is one where trust is the predominant energy. Trust and fear cannot co-exist in the same place. People who pretend they can co-exist are afraid to admit what their body knows: managerial fear overpowers trust every time.
— Liz Ryan, CEO & Founder of Human Workplace 

I read this quote a few years ago in Liz's article - Ten Unmistakable Signs of a Fear-Based Workplace. I thought she was so on point, even though my workplace (the two businesses I own) are both what I'd call trust-based. Both businesses have clients though, and I often get a peek behind their curtains. Let’s just say some of the wizards are not so nice, leading through fear, big blustery voices, with enough drama and pyrotechnics to be worthy of Oz. 

I usually sashay away from obviously negative or potentially problematic clients, but you can’t always say no; sometimes you have to lump it. One client, in particular, sent me back to Liz's article to find the above quote and do some creating.   

A presentation that I give at tech conferences, “How to Kick Fear and Toxicity out of the Workplace: A Practical Guide” is the basis for this blog series. That presentation came into being directly after I saw and heard an upper-level manager make a colleague cry in a meeting and belittle others with clever, snide passive-aggressive comments. It made me angry, and I first channeled that anger into an angry (never published) blog post with a few choice expletives. When cooler heads prevailed, the presentation I created from that anger was one of the top sessions at last year’s Microsoft Ignite Conference. As I continue to give this presentation, add to it, and update it as I learn, it always seems to strike a nerve - and it’s always well attended.  


People tend to see what they want to see in the mirror. Sadly, that’s most often a monumental distortion of reality. Many Fear-Based Managers (FBMs) lead through fear and narcissistic tendencies but seldom realize or understand they’re doing so. (Sure, some are extremely aware and very dangerous to have in one's life but they’re in the minority.) Still, the fact that most FBMs don’t see themselves as such makes them difficult to deal with. 

“The reason so many managers treat their employees as badly as they do and keep them in line with unnecessary rules, policies, and punishments is that the managers themselves are in a state of fear. They don’t know who they are behind the business card. Their professional identity is their only source of personal power, and they more than anyone else in their sphere know how fragile that power is.
— CEO & Founder, Liz Ryan, Human Workplace, The Five Characteristics of Fear-Based Leaders, Forbes Magazine

Ryan’s article discusses the characteristics of FBMs, and I've used her list for my investigative exploration and observations. I like this list because it goes beyond the obvious (being a blow-hard, losing one's temper) and gets into some of the subtler manifestations of someone who is fear-driven. Sometimes it isn't easy to realize you are working for an FBM or someone with FBM tendencies. Are you a manager, and if so, do any of these qualities sound familiar? Have they shown up on your 360-degree review?   


 In Driving fear out of the Workplace: Creating the High-Trust, High-Performance OrganizationKathleen D. Ryan and Daniel K. Oestreich wrote, “High performance, creativity, and trust is impossible when people are afraid to tell the truth.” The authors defined "fear" as the belief that speaking up about on-the-job concerns may result in adverse repercussions. Most of their interviewees said they especially dread "undiscussables," sensitive issues that need to be talked about and resolved but aren't. They suggest supporting behaviors like respect, honest, constructive feedback, and humor, but this work was published in 1998, and FBMs are still out there doing their thing. 

As an individual, you deserve a workplace that sees you, recognizes you, and appreciates what you have to offer. As a company owner, your company’s culture is on you. Employees (at every level) have to feel safe in sharing their observations and feelings with each other and with management. This is a lot easier in smaller companies, but management needs to be aware of this problem and stay diligent. 

Rose Krivich offers some insights in her 3 Important Conversations to Eliminate a Fear-Based Work Culture

She cites Daniel Pink’s Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Usin which Pink says when fear is present in an organization, it can lead to "The Seven Deadly Flaws:" 

1. It can extinguish intrinsic motivation. 

2. It can diminish performance. 

3. It can crush creativity. 

4. It can crowd out good behavior. 

5. It can encourage cheating, shortcuts, and unethical behavior. 

6. It can become addictive. 

7. It can foster short-term thinking. 

In 2015, Google published a list of the five traits that its most successful teams share. First among them was "psychological safety." The term was coined by Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson.  


Edmondson’s TEDx talk goes into detail, outlining these three paths:  

  1. Frame work as learning problems, as opposed to execution problems.  

  2. Acknowledge your own fallibility. 

  3. Model curiosity by asking a lot of questions. 

As an employee, start keeping a work journal. When you’re feeling frustrated, write it down. When you see unacceptable behavior, write it down. When things go great, write that down too. Encourage co-workers to do the same. Management (at all levels) needs a clear and complete picture of what’s going on if they’re going to be able to take action. There’s strength in numbers. The bosses can’t continue to look away if they get complaints from everyone who works for a particular manager. A work journal of mine proved very useful in a bad situation along while ago when I was having trouble with an FBM. 

And if all else fails… sashay away. We give (yes, it’s voluntary) a significant percentage of our lives to work. We all deserve not to be miserable there. There are a million jobs out there…. 



I spent the past two weeks out in the desert for my 11th burn and I often look to Burning Man’s “10 Principles” as a guidepost and I speak about this in another presentation I give called “What Burning Man Taught Me About Belonging”. To me, they are words to live by, and not just when you’re in the desert with 80,000 strangers. 

Here are seven of the 10 principles I think can be applied to improving workplace culture. 

Radical Inclusion 
Anyone may be a part of Burning Man.  

We must welcome everyone into the workplace. Our diversity is our greatest strength. 

Radical Self-reliance 
Burning Man encourages the individual to discover, exercise and rely on his or her inner resources.  

In the workplace, we need to feel encouraged to let creativity in. Multiple ideas bring multiple solutions. 

Radical Self-expression 
Radical self-expression arises from the unique gifts of the individual.  

This one may be a tough sell (your bare feet and pink mohawk won’t fly at a more conservative company), but we should all still feel like ourselves, even at work. You shouldn’t feel like your work persona is a lie. 

Communal Effort 
Our community values creative cooperation and collaboration.  

Work should feel like a community. Everyone has a unique role, and we’re all there to get the overall job done. 

Civic Responsibility 
The value of civil society and responsibility for each other and our welfare.  

Using the workplace as a metaphor for society, this concept spotlights individual responsibility. Own your actions and words. 

We achieve being through doing. Everyone is invited to work. Everyone is invited to play.  

In the ideal workplace, people feel encouraged to bring an attitude of play and creativity. When they know they are valued and creativity is rewarded, ideas can flow. 

Overcoming barriers that stand between us, our inner selves, participation, and contact with our natural world.  

In the workplace, this means speaking up to solve problems today, not letting them fester. The longer people stay silent about a toxic manager or co-worker, the worse it gets for everyone.  

The difference between working in and perpetuating a fear-based workplace or a trust-based workplace is something each of us as individuals have a choice about, the power to change and actions to take. If not now, when, if not whom, well, to me it is up to all of us to bring change in what we choose to accept, walk away from, and influence.  


Ten Unmistakable Signs of a Fear Based Workplace 

The Five Characteristics of Fear Based Leaders  

Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us 

Building a Psychologically Safe Workplace | TEDx Talk 

Amy Edmondson on Psychological Safety 

10 Principles of Burning Man 

Stay connected with news and updates!

Join our mailing list to receive the latest news and updates from our team.
Don't worry, your information will not be shared.

We hate SPAM. We will never sell your information, for any reason.