Crafting the Boogeyman: Six Strategies Leaders use to Create a Culture of Fear.
Part 2 of a four part series on fear and courage in organizations
Yesterday I went to see the Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse movie and came across a poster for The Boogeyman movie, inspired by Stephen King, one of my favorite authors. In fact, I recently listened to the Audio version of his book Fairy Tail, and I loved it (maybe I can get the reader, Seth Numrich, to read my book. His rendition was brilliant. I know. Wrong genre. But hey, my book is the scary stuff in the business world, so there is at least some overlap!). I looked at the Boogeyman poster and immediately made the decision to never, ever, ever watch that movie. Seriously. It looks way too scary for me. Can you imagine if that movie was set in your workplace? If your work had a scary lurking figure that could cause irreparable harm? For many organizations, that is exactly what workers face. Listen to the blog post here:
The Boogeyman is a fascinating historical character that has been used to frighten children into submission. Although the Boogyeman comes in many different forms, he is always a nebulous character, hiding in the shadows and dark spaces of human life, waiting for his next target. He is a terrifying creature that is used to create unquestioning compliance.
There is a Very Fine Chance that the Boogeyman Lives in Your Organization.
In fact, as I showcased in last week’s blog, (part 1 of this series on fear and courage), many organizations cultivate the toxic value of fear. In other words, leaders create a culture of fear. They make their people afraid, even terrified, which makes them complacent and unquestioning. For these employees, the Boogeyman lurks in every corner. Their workplaces are always on the edge of fear, which leaves them constantly surveilling their organization for risks. You know how in horror films, scary music plays when something bad is about to happen? Well, in organizations where fear is valued, It feels like that music is constantly playing.
How do Leaders Create a Culture of Fear?
I have had a lot of years to think about this question, ever since I published my first (and might I humbly add, award winning) research article theorizing the relationship between power, fear, gender, and sexual harassment. Since then I have done quite a bit of additional research on emotions, on sexual harassment, and on power, including my recent book (which I am pretty darned proud of!). I have also done consulting (Thank you National Park Service and the United States Army for encouraging me to identify you as my clients, and to my other clients who prefer anonymity) on issues such as varied as emotional agency, organizational culture, organizational values, sexual harassment, and diversity/inclusion/equity/access. This body of work has helped me understand how fear becomes woven into the fabric or organizational cultures.
So, in keeping with the tendency for workplace and leadership blogs to identify a small number of easy steps to accomplish a ridiculously challenging task, in today’s article I will focus on six simple strategies organizational leaders use to create the Boogeyman in their organizations.
Strategy One: Treat Questions Like They Challenge Your Leadership.
Good leaders know how to ask and answer questions. Great leaders know how to listen to questions in order to develop the capacity of their followers. Bad leaders tend to avoid questions like people in the Middle Ages tried to avoid the plague. What I hear most often from these people is that they view questions as a challenge to their authority, rather than as an opportunity to create better decisions. In fact, too often bad leaders come with a predetermined decision that they expect followers to unquestioningly implement. There are two serious consequences.
Decisions often carry unfortunate and unconsidered consequences because they have not been carefully and thoughtfully vetted with a larger team.
Perhaps more important, team members stop asking questions because they no longer trust their “leaders” to, well, to lead.
Strategy Two: Focus on the Content of the Communication/Ignore the Delivery.
Destructive behavior can be woven into the fabric of organizational culture through an overly simplistic understanding of communication. Most people think of communication as the simple provision of information. As a result, they tend to focus on the content of the communication. Yet, communication is also about meaning making, which is how we come to understand our world, or in this case, our organizational culture. It is about how we understand what is right and wrong. What is valued and what is reviled (If you are curious about the four forms of communication, you might want to read my book, Chapter 2).
When leaders focus exclusively on the content of the communication, they fail to give value to the meaning making that goes with that information. For example, in one organization, an organizational member would provide reasonably good ideas, but would present those ideas through bullying and stigmatizing other members of the team. Instead of calling him in for bullying and stigmatizing behaviors, the leader at the time would simply focus on the content. In this way, the bully was rewarded for bad behavior and was eventually promoted to a leadership role, where he terrorized organizational members for several years before a senior leader fired him because of his troubling behavior. So, if you want to create a culture that prioritizes fear, then ignore the larger communication behaviors where bullying and harassment can thrive.
Strategy Three: Respond to Reports of Problems by Looming.
Yes, looming—a person who makes themselves seem physically large and threatening. I cannot tell you how many times both my study participants and organizational trainees describe a larger sized employee (usually male) using his mass “to his advantage.” Usually, this person enters the employee’s personal space, making their physical presence more marked and threatening. Sometimes the leader will yell at the employee while in a very small physical space. Sometimes leaders will loom by making their chair taller than the employees chair, or will have the employee sit while the anti-leader stands. I call this looming, and it is designed to terrorize employees, reducing their willingness to stand up to bad behavior.
Strategy Four: Insist on Constant Positivity.
I cringe just a little every time an organizational leader tells me they insist their workers always focus on “the positive.” Why do I cringe? Because my research (sexual harassment, emotional manipulation, stigma, social class discrimination, etc.) clearly demonstrates how easy it is for the destructive underbelly of organizational life to invade and destroy an organizational culture. To prevent this from happening, it is absolutely imperative for organizational members to be able to speak to and assertively address this destructive behavior.
Strategy Five: Punish Courageous Behavior.
If courage is the antidote to fear, then you will need to prevent courageous behavior at all costs, especially bystanders who intervene in or report problematic behavior. Here are two common punitive behaviors that bad leaders tend to use.
Socially isolate bystanders who intervene. Bystanders express extreme fear of being isolated from their coworkers if they step up and step in to prevent or stop predatory sexual behavior. To encourage this type of fearful thinking, make sure that you demote, laterally move, gossip about, and allow mobbing of intervening bystanders so that others will become even more fearful of intervening.
Engage in mystification. Mystification is like gaslighting but at the organizational/cultural level. Tell the bystander they misunderstood the behavior. Tell the bystander you are looking into it, but then don’t. Tell the bystander they just don’t get the culture. Tell the bystander to stay in their lane/mind their own business. Tell the bystander that they are the real problem.
Strategy Six: Engage in Predatory Sexual Behavior, Bullying, and Discrimination.
This one will really shake the fear into your workers because they will be bitterly aware that real violence is a possible outcome of deviation from a very narrow standard. It also provides a destructive role model for your employees to emulate, so in a sense, lots of employees get to be the Boogeyman. Plus, it kind of makes you a bad person. Bonus points, right?
By using these 6 strategies, you too can create the boogeyman, where employees are constantly fearful and anxious. Of course, your organization probably will not be very functional, but whatever. At least you will feel powerful. What more could you ask for?
Wait! You want to know how to alter a culture of fear? You want to lock the Boogeyman out of your workplace? Great. Next week I will provide strategies for how you can create a culture that inspires courage.
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