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Fear in the workplace: Why leaders shouldn’t run a business the way Martin Winterkorn did

Volkswagen (VW) has had a tough few months. It has dominated many headlines since it was revealed it cheated emission tests in order to meet regulatory standards. This, in itself is terrible, but when looking at why this came about, it has been suggested that VW wasn’t such a happy place to work.
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Critics have said that the pressure on managers was “unusual” with five former VW executives interviewed by Reuters describing the management style under their now departed CEO, Martin Winterkorn as “fostering a climate of fear… an authoritarianism that went unchecked partly due to a company structure unique in the German motor industry.

Another former VW executive said: “There was always a distance, a fear and a respect… If he would come and visit or you to go to him, your pulse would go up. If you presented bad news, those were the moments that it could become quite unpleasant and loud and quite demeaning,” – although the executive didn’t provide specific examples. 

Fear in the workplace

Unfortunately, this isn’t a rare occurrence; so many CEOs run their businesses on fear, unwittingly damaging their companies from within, and running the risk of having a major incident like that experienced by Volkswagen. The fact is, people want to feel excited about the day ahead, motivated and challenged by their work and good about the relationships that are developing. 

But the professional world is far too regularly tainted with anxiety from workers experiencing the fear of losing their jobs, being criticised, rejected, excluded and left behind. Fear is one of the most powerful emotions in our working culture today. It outshines love and joy with ease – the emotions that make us feel life is worth-while. 

Organisations that rely on fear in the mistaken belief that it motivates are surprisingly regular, but these methods are simply counterproductive. They weaken workers and the structure of companies; they leave people feeling threatened and vulnerable. Fear does not motivate – it paralyses, leaving workers distracted by forever watching their backs or looking for ways to please the boss, and potentially suffering from stress-related psychological and physical problems. Simply put, scared people don’t produce good work and this has the potential to cost organisations, like Volkswagen, a lot of time and money.

The antidote to fear = trust

The other end of the scale holds the solution to these issues. The antidote to fear is trust. To create trust within a company, good relationships have to be built and maintained. Quite often, organisations focus copious amounts of energy and resources on building external relationships with customers but seemingly decline to do the same within their own employees. Without good, healthy relationships, trust breaks down and the culture becomes a breeding ground for fear. 

In an ideal world, all HR systems should be designed with the aim of producing trust. This means, organisationally, that individuals know they are valued and respected as individuals, are permitted to make mistakes if they are honest and can see their work as part of their own life’s journey. This will allow them to continuously offer to the organisation the very best of themselves. 

Thee negative press around Winterkorn could be based on hearsay and he is an unfortunate victim in all of this. However, it has given us the opportunity to speak out; to say that fearful environments just don’t work. They are completely unhealthy, invariably destructive and result in a lack of efficiency, competitive and invention. They may survive, but will not thrive. 

Joan Kingsley is an organisational psychotherapist and together with Dr Paul Brown and Dr Sue Paterson, wrote “The Fear-Free Organization: Vital Insights from Neuroscience to Transform your Business Culture”. 

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