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  • Debbie Dougherty

Is there a Monster Under the Bed? Organizational Culture and the Ethic of Fear.

Updated: Jun 20, 2023

A cute little kitten staring mornfully at the viewer. Picture is in watercolor
The Monster Under the Bed by Freya Clark

“Hello customers/clients/employees/constituents, this is organization X and I want you to know that we value Fear. Yep, we do everything in our power to make you afraid. Come work with us, and you, too, can be endlessly fearful.”

Said no organization ever.

And yet, in his dissertation exploring bystanders of sexual harassment in organizational contexts, Tyler Sorg discovered that for many bystanders, this is precisely what happens. In many

organizations, bystanders are endlessly fearful, making them passive observers or even active participants, but rarely interveners. Because of his research, and because of our larger conversation around this topic, I asked Dr. Tyler Sorg to coauthor this week’s blog.

Listen to the blog post here:

Organizations Create an Ethic of Fear

Evidence suggests that many organizations organize around the toxic value of fear. They make their people afraid, even terrified, in order to make them complacent and unquestioning. As you can imagine, this is not good on so many levels. To understand how organizations create an ethic of fear, perhaps it will be helpful to step back to understand how fear becomes a central value in the workplace.

We Do Values

Let’s get real about values for just a minute. In organizations (and maybe in family life as well), there are the values that we claim and the values that we do. The values we claim usually make delightful marketing and promotional campaigns but are not the “real” values that drive the organization. We have found that very often, organizational members don’t even know that the organization has a formal set of values.

In his dissertation, Tyler used the Transformational Model of Organizational Culture (Trans-MOC) to explore the ways in which destructive behaviors are codified in organizational culture. At the risk of oversimplifying a complex process, organizational cultures are formed around patterns of behaviors that give meaning to an organization. As a result, we know what an organization really values by observing how an organization behaves.

In the simplest terms, the values that we do are the values that we enact every day. Here is an example of what that looks like from Tyler's interview data. John described a time when his male coworkers had fantasized about raping a customer's daughter when they walked into the store. The following conversation ensued"

Tyler: How often do you feel like these comments are made by the men or the women in your workplace? 10 out of 10?

John: Every time.

Tyler: Every time?

John: I don’t…I don't think there's a person that walks in the door that is not commented on.

Tyler: What do you feel is the reason for why those comments are made?

John: I think it has just become quite the norm because people feel they can say what they want when they want, regardless of the consequences.

What values do you see being enacted in this excerpt? Do you see respect? Neither do we.

What is important for you to know at this point is that you can actually see organizational values in play when people talk.

Back to this Fear Thing.

What is fear and how does it work? According to an article on fear is a primal emotion that involves a universal biochemical response and a high individual emotional response. Fear alerts us to the presence of danger or the threat of harm, whether that danger is physical or psychological.

Sometimes fear stems from real threats, but it can also originate from imagined dangers. While fear is a natural response to some situations, it can also lead to distress and disruption when extreme or out of proportion to the actual threat.

Although fear can lead to distress and disruption, it can also trigger the reward center of people’s brains, leading to enjoyment in scary activities. That is fine and dandy when the fear is generated from watching a scary movie, or from physical activities like say, snow skiing, but that fear/reward pairing can become highly problematic when fear is woven into the fabric of the organizational culture. When that happens you get a constantly triggered primal emotion that is distressing, disruptive, counterproductive, and yet also potentially rewarding.

Fear of Physical Violence

We roughly divide fear into two forms. The first type of fear is due to physical threat. Sexual harassment is an excellent example because it always comes with, at minimum, the hint of violence. We have long understood that fear is a byproduct of sexual harassment.

Bystanders who attempt to intervene in sexual harassment can, justifiably, fear violence from the perpetrator. Take Brittany, from Tyler's study, as an example of bystander fear. Brittany felt secure in her job because of her unique skill sets, yet her boss found other was to scare her when she confronted him about his sexual harassment.

[My Boss] could tell that I knew my standing and that he wasn't going to get rid of me for telling him how inappropriate he was being or telling him that he had to stop [sexually harassing his female employees]. But he would talk to me in private one-on-one in this, like a coat closet size room to make you feel fearful, scared, and in a small space with him and he was a large man, and he would talk to you in a nasty tone. He didn’t just do it with me. Anytime anybody said anything, whether it was [confronting him about] sexual harassment or not, He would, he would yell at you or like scream at you and he would always take us to this one like little, tiny room. Even though there were other rooms.

Note the way that Brittany's boss deliberately set out to create a culture of fear. Given that sexual predators in organizations—those people who engage in ongoing acts of harassment and assault, are more likely to be unethical in other ways, fearing the consequences of bystander intervention is reasonable. In Tyler’s study, only a few bystanders intervened, despite the risk. We find it remarkable that Brittany continued to confront her boss about his sexual harassment of employees, despite the terrifying consequences. These super bystanders are the type of employee that we need to cultivate in organizations.

The Monster Under the Bed

The second type of fear originates from imagined dangers. When Debbie’s son was about two years old, he became terrified of “the monster under my bed.” He could not sleep because, no matter how many times Debbie checked under his bed, no matter how many times she reassured him that there was no monster and that monsters were not real, her son continued to fear the monster under his bed. Interestingly, his description of the monster, as well as the bad things the monster was going to do, constantly changed, but the fear was persistent.

Some of the fears that bystanders articulate are like the monster under the bed. The fears are nebulous and vague yet very real to the study participants. Here are some examples from Tyler's study:

  • Might be Called Gay: It seems like if someone does disagree, you know, part of the group is making [sexually harassing] comments, at least for the men like, you know, if you disagree, they say, “what are you, gay or something?”

  • Being Outcast/Grouped In: I think it's more of a fear of them, either trying to make you an outcast or fear of being grouped in with something that you don't want to be part of.

  • Ruffling Feathers/Losing Friends/Pissing Friends Off: Yeah, you are definitely ruffling the feathers of people you have to see every day and that isn't fun and possibility of losing friends, also, isn't fun. Sometimes I feel like you kind of give them a free pass. They are your friends; you don't want to lose your friend. You don't want to piss your friends off.

Note how, in these quotes, the fears seem to be constantly shifting. "Maybe I will ruffle feathers (oh no!), piss off friends, lose friends, not have fun, etc." It reminds us of Debbie's son's monster under the bed. The nature of the monster kept shifting, but the fear was persistent. For the Bystanders in Tyler's study, the end result was always the same. Bystanders who expressed this type of fear almost always walked away, stood passively by, or worse yet, actively participated in the sexual harassment.

Creating An Ethic of Courage.

Courage is an interesting emotion because its presence is fully dependent on the presence of Fear. In other words, you can only be courageous if you are also afraid. As a result, courage is an antidote to fear, and from the organizational culture perspective, provides a wedge with which organizational cultures can evolve.

Courage needs to start with leaders and managers. I think about my friend Gregg Ward's work helping leaders create respect in their organizations. The processes Gregg lays out are simple by design. Yet implementing those processes takes courage. It requires leaders to step up and do the hard work of managing their culture, of doing the values that they want to drive the organization.

First, however, maybe it is time to assess your organization's culture, especially the values that organizational members do.

We would like to know:

Tell us about how your organization creates fear as a value.

Tell us how your organization prevents fear from becoming a value.

Tyler Sorg, PhD., is an assistant professor at Westminster College.

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