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The Fear Premium: Why Your Workplace Initiatives are Failing

Have you ever thought about how small inefficiencies lead to larger problems at work? Why does that happen? 

“I had to get to the airport at 6am for my flight and was told to order a car via the hotel or it would be dangerous.

He arrived at 3am as he worried about missing the fare if he was late. 

As he started off, his card reader wouldn’t work so we circled back so he could park and fix it. 

We started off again and then he tried to charge my credit card and it didn’t work so we circled back and the hotel said they would charge it and then give him the money, which took some time because they had to find a more senior person to open the petty cash safe. 

Then as we drove away he could not find some mobile pin he needed so pulled over to look under his seat and the seat next to him. He apologized as he said his car had been carjacked recently and they had stolen the previous card reader. As he rooted around at the side of the road, I wondered if we might be a pretty good target to be hijacked again. 

He found his pin and off we went. At this point, I noticed the low fuel light had come on. I was wondering if I would make my flight or even get to the airport at all!”

The above was relayed to me by a friend who came back from Africa.

Much like this chaotic taxi ride, riddled with unnecessary detours and delays, many workplaces unknowingly pay a 'Fear Premium.' Employees navigate through a maze of inefficiencies and hurdles, often rooted in a culture of fear and uncertainty, mirroring the unexpected obstacles faced in my friend's journey. This silent undercurrent in the workplace can quietly derail even the best initiatives and strategies.

Do you ever have days like that at work? 

The hoops you jump through to do your expenses or get a contract signed. 

The small but daring experiment that a client requests but that gets abandoned because it encroaches on someone else’s turf or falls outside the usual process. 

It’s just a proverbial taxi ride to the airport but it just feels too damn hard!

So you “quiet quit” or resign yourself to business as usual. 

Which in this day and age usually means you are standing still while everyone else moves ahead. 

I mean everyone has stressful days at work once in a while. 

But more times that you’d like to admit, you know the truth.

This ain’t a “add group yoga at lunch” problem. 

This is the sign of an environment and culture that has not been designed with the right outcomes in mind.

We actually create those environments with our carelessness, our lack of coordination between departments, our focus on processes over people. 

The company pays a “fear premium” that keeps people small and uncomplaining and not willing to speak out for the collective good. 

Then you magnify that by saying, “oh, that’s not my responsibility”, often because of a lack of a clear vision and shared outcomes for the future.

This massively hampers business performance and results. 

It looks like this:

  • Fabulous strategy at the top that isn’t coming out of the mouths of those on the front line
  • Duplication of efforts across siloed departments with misaligned incentives
  • A whistleblowing policy that checks the box but is never used because everyone knows it is not confidential or considered
  • Wasted hours as people try to figure out the way to get something done or why it isn’t working
  • General apathy as people don’t have the remit to change things for the better or understand their part in the bigger picture

You unwittingly sabotage people’s best efforts at work. 

Then you wonder why they aren’t working hard enough when it seems like we need to work harder than ever to keep ahead.

Companies, like people, have a hard time seeing this behavior in themselves. 

Recognizing these challenges is the first step. Now, let's explore how a shift in workplace culture can not only address these issues but also pave the way for more effective and meaningful change.

What can you do?

Let me tell you a story about a different morning. 

I walked out of my apartment building and saw two Christmas wreaths leaning against the wall next to the post box with apartment numbers on them. These are part of a “group buy” on the Chinese WeChat app. The flowers (or wreaths) remain there until people come to pick up their purchases. No one steals them.

The flower delivery guy doesn't have to enter the building and go up to each apartment, saving time.

People know it’s a group buy and all buy at the same time and get delivery at the same time.

The efficiency drives down the price. 

Most of all, the culture of trust allows this small transaction to happen all over the city with an upward spiral of value.  

I’ve thought a lot about how the culture of a company can create breakthrough results. Most of my clients are thinking about big assets and big trends. Culture feels squishy. 

But ask yourself, what results might be possible if…

  • you have a culture where people do not overwork at the wrong things out of fear
  • the environment is not actively working against your people
  • getting to do your job doesn’t take four times the effort because of interference, second guessing, seniority or toxic people hijacking your work? 

This week my metaphor of the African taxi ride vs the roadside flowers might be imperfect but the message is clear. The time spent building a clear vision of the future, with processes and culture to support it, is not optional. It’s the road to results. 

What steps can you take today to start shifting the culture in your workplace? How can you contribute to creating an environment where efficiency, trust, and proactive problem-solving are the norm? 

I encourage you to reflect on these questions and consider the role you can play in driving positive change.


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