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  • Debbie Dougherty

Defeating the Boogeyman: Six Strategies Leaders Use to Create a Culture of Courage.

Updated: Aug 15, 2023

Part three of a four part series on fear and courage in organizations.

A Black man with white dreadlocks, tears streaming from eyes and blood trickling from his nose.
Courage is the Antidote to Fear. Digital art by Freya Clark.

Last week I promised that, as much as I love Stephen King as an author and writer, I am never, ever, ever going to watch his movie The Boogeyman. Way too scary for me. However, based on the scary movie genre, and based on his writing, oh, and because I cheated and read an overview of the movie, I will take a guess at the trajectory of the Boogeyman movie, dividing it roughly into three parts.

  • In Part 1, the boogeycreature (surprise! it is not a dude. It is a non-sexed demonic creature) emerges.

  • In Part 2, A bystander arrives to warn people that the boogeycreature is coming. No one believes the bystander. The bystander dies.

  • In Part 3, one person creates a plan, enacts an extraordinary amount of courage, and at great personal risk, defeats the Boogeycreature.

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Stephen King once wrote in his outrageously useful book On Writing, that he likes to do really bad things to characters that we, the readers, are supposed to root for (do you remember the movie Misery, when the character Paul Sheldon had both his ankles broken with a sledge hammer? Like that). As a result, I expect some really awful things will happen to central characters along the way, because, you know, Stephen King. Does this remind you of your workplace? Maybe you don't have characters swinging real sledgehammers, but in some organizations it feels like it.

Workplace and the Culture of Fear

This, my friends, is precisely what happens in your workplace after it has been infiltrated by the Boogeycreature. The process can be roughly divided into three parts.

  • In part 1 of this four part series, I talk about how fear becomes a central value in organizations.

  • In part 2 of this series, I describe strategies leaders use to weave fear into their organizational cultures.

  • It is now time for part 3. How can leaders craft and execute a plan to defeat the Boogeycreature?

Who is this Organizational Boogeycreature?

There are three relevant details that may be helpful for organizational leaders. First, way back in the day, parents felt the need to create a monster type figure they could use to terrorize their children into obedience. When organizations craft the boogeycreature, they are treating their employees like children who need to be terrorized into obedience.

Second, historically, the Boogeycreature has had many names and has almost always been portrayed as male or androgynous. This portrayal obscures the reality that organizational boogeycreatures come in every gender. As some of my readers pointed out last week, some of the worst offenders are often women.

Finally, according to Wikipedia, "boogeyman"is sometimes used as a non-specific personification or metonym for terror, and in some cases, the Devil.[3] When I talk about the boogeycreature infiltrating your organizational culture, I am not talking about a specific person. I am talking about environments saturated with fear and terror. Although at any point a single person may step into the boogeycreature role, that person is symbolic of a larger problem that only courageous leaders can address.

How Can Leaders Create a Culture of Courage?

Last week I provided six tongue in cheek strategies a leader could use to create a culture of fear. My research and consulting suggest that it is surprisingly easy to weave the boogiecreature into your organizational culture. All you need is persistent nebulous fear and Ta-Da, your workplace will become a place where employees are constantly fearful.

Do you know what is harder? Getting rid of the boogiecreature in your organizational culture. You can't just snap your fingers and expect people to stop being afraid. Organizational cultures are persistent and resistant to change. Although you can't just change your culture, with careful thought and consideration, you can evolve your culture so that employees are bold and confident. You can, with careful planning and thoughtful execution, create a culture of courage.

Strategy 1: Find your Courage

As the leader, it is okay to be afraid. Of course it is. You are not immune to the organizational culture that inspires fear. Further, pushing back against habituated organizational behavior is not going to make you popular, at least not in the short term. Courage is not a lack of fear. Courage means moving forward despite your fear. In this way, your courage becomes the antidote to fear.

Strategy 2: Stop Pushing and Start Leading

It is called leadership, not pushership, because a leader sets the tone, creates momentum, provide a roadmap, and acts as the role model. If the boogeycreature has infiltrated your organization, then it is because it was invited into the organizational culture and allowed to fester. You need to step up and step in to actively lead the culture toward trust and respect.

Strategy 3: Encourage Employees to Ask Questions

One sure sign that the Boogeycreature has infiltrated your organizational culture is when your employees stop asking questions. Do not make the mistake of thinking that their silence is agreement or consent. That is not the case. They are silent because they fear the consequences of asking questions. They understand the hidden rules, hidden expectations, and hidden values of your organization and they understand that violations are BAD. Asking questions requires courage, but courage in your organization is punished, so employees are silent instead.

I recognize that many leaders will do almost anything to avoid questions because they see it as a threat to their authority. If you feel this way, then you may need to rethink your entire approach to leadership. Leadership should not be about YOUR authority. To be an excellent leader you need enough confidence to encourage questions from your followers. In this way, you can create authority with your followers instead of authority over your followers.

Strategy 4: Embrace the Caretakers

Have you ever noticed that in almost all of the Disney Princess movies (and apparently, also in The Boogeyman movie), the Moms are gone, usually they have died leaving their children to be raised by fathers, or strangers, or elves, or birds, or fairy god creatures. Why do you think this is? It is because Moms usually are expected to play the interventionist role. They are the ones who are the designated caretakers and if they were present in the story, bad stuff just would not happen. Now, of course, Dads can also be excellent caretakers. Of course they can. But in the stories, it is the Moms who are expected to perform the caretaker role.

In cultures of fear, the caretaker is usually the first victim of the culture. Why? Because like in the Disney movies, bad things can't happen while caretakers are present. This bystander type person is destroyed or left so damaged that they either leave the organization or become a shell of their former selves. You, as the leader, must resurrect this role. Find your caretakers. Find your bystanders who are willing to step in to support colleagues who are being terrorized. Once you find them, pay them well, promote them into leadership, treat them like the treasures they are.

Strategy 5: Make the Tough Calls

Once the Boogeycreature infiltrates your organization, you have to eliminate its minions--those employees who have absorbed the habits and values that perpetuate the culture of fear. No matter how productive, how funny, how important these people are, they have to go.

Perhaps it would help if I provide a different metaphor. Think about your organization like it is a garden (here is a video using this metaphor that people seem to like). I am a gardener. In the spring and summer you can usually find me in my very large garden. This year I bought four tomato plants. I am very anxious for this particular variety of tomatoes to ripen. When I went out to check the plants last week, I noticed a blight--probably a bacterial infection--on one of the plants. I plucked those leaves off. Then I looked at the plant immediately adjacent and was alarmed to find more blighted leaves. Then I looked at the first plant in that row and found that it was fully infested with that blight. I tried to pluck the leaves from that plant, but realized the infestation was far too advanced. That blighted plant had some emerging tomatoes. They were still green, but eventually they would mature and be delicious. In other words, that blighted plant was productive.

Guess what I did. Yep, I pulled the plant out by its roots and tossed it as far from the garden as I could. Then I went through the other plants and pruned those tomatoes so that any remaining infestation would be gone. Now, think about how fear infests your garden/organization. Maybe it is in the form of gossip, bullying, sexual harassment, or violence. You need to find the infestation and excise it from your garden. Then you need to do the work with your remaining plants/employees so the infestation does not return.

Strategy 6: Do Your Values

Look, I have said it before, and I will say it again. Organizational values are not something that we say. Organizational values are something that we do. If your organization does fear, then fear is the value. If your organization does courage, then courage is the value. If your organization does respect, then respect is the value. Ask yourself, as the leader, what toxic values am I doing in my workplace that encourages this culture that inspires fear? How do my actions create fear? Then ask yourself, what values do I want to drive my organization and what do I need to do to realize my aspirational values. It is only through mindfully engaging with your values through your everyday behavior that your values are realized.


Engaging with your organizational culture is hard work, and it may or may not produce the desired results. It is much easier to prevent the boogiecreature from infiltrating your organization than it is to defeat the creature once it has become woven into the fabric of your organizational culture. You may need to bring in an expert to help with your cultural evolution. Many leaders hesitate because of the cost. I get it, but the cost of not vanquishing fear can be tremendous. Whatever you decide to do I applaud your courage and foresight in stepping into the fray. Next week, in part 4 of this series, I will talk about how you can create a culture that inspires courage.

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Shahinur rashid
Shahinur rashid
Sep 18, 2023

Dr. Debbie, your analogy of Stephen King's movie and the Boogeyman infiltrating the workplace is both clever and thought-provoking. The breakdown into three parts effectively illustrates the progression of fear within an organization.

Your strategies for leaders to combat this culture of fear are invaluable. Encouraging questions and recognizing the importance of caretakers are particularly insightful. Your metaphor of the garden and the need to eliminate the infestation of fear is powerful.

Emphasizing that organizational values are demonstrated through actions, not just words, is a crucial reminder for leaders. Engaging with one's values on a daily basis is the key to shaping a positive culture.

Your willingness to address this critical issue and provide practical solutions demonstrates true leadership. I…


Lee Akers Sr.
Lee Akers Sr.
Jun 28, 2023
Rated 5 out of 5 stars.

So how does one rid the organization of the blighted plant, when it is "the boss"? If you are in middle management, and the fear comes from up the chain, how does one replace that systemic fear with positivity?

Debbie Dougherty
Debbie Dougherty
Sep 20, 2023
Replying to

Great question. I don’t know.

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