Seven Simple Rules to Create a Fear Based Culture July 29 2010

Boss-yelling Thanks to the readers of this blog, I've collected a really excellent list of things to do if you're a leader who wants to create a culture of fear in your organization. Not that the readers and commenters are suggesting that you actually do these things. Unfortunately, though, a lot of them have been on the receiving end of these behaviors and have witnessed the negative results. Sometimes these results are, as I wrote in a recent post, Fear Kills, matters of life and death. Most of the time they're not. (At least not immediately.  Working in a stress inducing, soul sucking environment is never good for one's life expectancy over the long haul.)

So, with the idea in mind that a good way to learn leadership is to do the opposite of what really crappy leaders do, here is an edited list of readers' suggestions for seven simple rules for creating a fear based culture:

1.   Kill the messenger.  When someone brings you bad news, let them know through your spoken language, your body language, your tone of voice that you can't handle the truth.

2.   Thank the messenger and then ignore them. Give them a figurative pat on the head when they point out a problem and then go right ahead and do what you were going to do anyway. In no time, people will learn that you really don't want to hear it.

3.   Ignore the people on the front line. Better yet, make it impossible for them to get the real story to you.  After all, they're only the ones that are closest to the customers and the competition.

4.   Let your insecurity run rampant. The troops love it when you do.  Show them how insecure you are by micromanaging their every decision or move.  Explode in rage when they do something without checking with you first. Pretty soon, they'll be paralyzed with fear and nothing will happen without your personal involvement.

5.   Defend yourself no matter what.  If someone has the temerity to offer you some constructive feedback, give them at least three reasons why they're wrong. Let's get real; they don't know what it's like to be you and deal with the pressure you're under.

6.   Tease them until they cry.  Well, maybe not until they cry, but what's wrong with them if they can't take a joke?  Your position of power makes you even funnier than you were before you were a boss.  If you really want them rolling in the aisles, make jokes about job security.  They love that.

7.   Keep them guessing. Create an air of mystery about what mood you're going to be in today.  Benevolent dictator or ruthless tyrant? Only your lackeys will know for sure. Everyone else will be on pins and needles about how to act around you until you spring the mood of the day on them.

I know what you're thinking – only seven rules?  There are way more than seven. These are just the ones that were inspired by reader comments. (Thanks everyone.) We all have our favorite rules for creating a fear based culture. What's your favorite?

19 Responses to “Seven Simple Rules to Create a Fear Based Culture”

  1. Good post! This reminds me of another of my favorite fear-generating techniques: randomly change people's assignments and/or titles at irregular intervals. be sure to do it before anyone actually completely understand their new rle, however, or they'll start to think you're doing some useful cross-training. Instead, perform haphazzard shuffles in order to prevent expertise from breaking out. This will give everyone a sense that they can be dismissed easily since they're not fully capable of doing any job, anywhere in the organization.

  2. Curve based performance rating! That creates a fear based culture when you know you are comparing against your peers.

  3. E.D. says:

    Random layoffs and furloughs are two of my favorites. Joking about a site being "too expensive" is a close third.

  4. Scott Eblin says:

    Some great additions to the list, folks. (Great meaning true and authentic, not great practices.) It's pretty sad, actually, that we can come up with so many good examples of how to create a fear based culture. Any thoughts on why, as human beings, we are so prone to act this way?

  5. Liz Tucker says:

    Here's another one:

    Issue clear and detailed instructions about how you want a project done, then when that doesn't work, deny entirely it was your idea.

  6. Anon says:

    12. When you screw up, make your staff call the client and apologize. Make sure they tell the client it was their mistake. In fact, you should tell your staff it was their mistake so you can make sure they get the story right before they fix the problem.

    13. Refuse to do anything that's actually assigned to you – especially if it will impact your staff's ability to be successful on a project. Then, when they ask you how it's coming along, get defensive and evasive but never answer the question. Later, when it becomes clear that execution went completely awry, explain to your staff your own personal version of Adaptability and how they lack it.

    As far as why people act this way, it's pure laziness. It's much easier to yell and blame and be random than it is to grow and learn and plan. The latter requires effort ;)

  7. Stu Morgan says:

    Publicly humiliate those who are struggling to meet their goals, but don't recognize top achievers.

  8. Jim M. says:

    In response to Mr. Ebling's query as to why humans create a fear-based culture is reflected in a Peter Principle (1970's) equation for office security = I(3) J(5), in that I = as Incompetent one is for performing a task, the more Jealousy directed to someone else doing it better; someone was promoted to a Level of Incompetence.

  9. Annonymous says:

    After 5 years tell an employee their position is an experiment and then take away all tools that were helping them to be successful

  10. The sad part of this post is it is based on actual people and events.
    That isn't leadership it is management. Poor at that.

  11. NK says:

    When you are missing in the office, always tell employees that you were in offsite meeting with the top guns and discussing strategy/future, concerns around company not meeting goals etc…

  12. Chris says:


    Regarding your question "It's pretty sad, actually, that we can come up with so many good examples … Any thoughts on why, as human beings, we are so prone to act this way?"

    The Germans have a word for it, "Schadenfreude," pleasure derived from the misfortunes of others. Especially in the current US culture — we just seem to enjoy building 'em up — then knocking 'em down.

    If broken down to the most primitive level, perhaps it's simply the human characteristic of envy.


  13. Shiv245 says:

    Discourage new hires from asking too many questions or asking for support early on, because "you believe in letting people think on their feet and learn by figuring it out on their own."

    Advocating that employees should be resourceful and think on their feet is one thing. Scaring them away from asking questions and for the necessary support to succeed is another.

  14. Renee says:

    1. Give your subordinates personal lessons on how to talk over whoever is on the other end of the phone so the calling party cannot get a word in edgewise. When the caller is finally totally frustrated, mute the phone and snicker in glee. 2. Blame your "pet subordinate's" errors on your other employees and then console the latter by saying no one is perfect. 3. Keep your employees late in biweekly three-hour long staff meetings so you can keep tabs on every little thing they are doing. 4. Scream at employees to show you are serious about the topic. 5. Escort crying subordinates out a side exit so others cannot see them after you have eviscerated another soul.

  15. Dax says:

    - Show up late to meetings or don't show up at all. Keep 'em guessing and make sure it's clear that your time is more valuable then theirs.

  16. -Remind employees often that you're tracking their emails and online activities.

    Facebook or Twitter spot check at anytime…

  17. Scott Eblin says:

    Thanks for all of the additional fear inducing rules everyone. On the one hand, I'm happy to get them. On the other hand, I'm sad because I have the feeling that you've lived through the behaviors you've written about.

    I hope Scott Adams is reading this comment stream as there is at least a couple of months worth of material for Dilbert in all of this.

    Cheers –


  18. Anonymous says:

    Within days of having a new employee on the job, dress them down in front of their boss's boss are least three or four times, making it clear that these are offenses for which one could be terminated. (Most effective in a down economy.) Then periodically after that make up lies presented without any clue that they are coming in front of boss's boss again. At any sign that the person may be using a fraction of his/her capability, repeat above behaviors, while reminding employee how important you are and how valued you are by the organization's top leaders.

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