HR Headaches: A Bad Manager Just Left — How to Fix a Culture of Fear

Recovering from a toxic manager who instilled a culture of fear may be difficult, but it can be done.

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First and foremost: treat your employees with respect and understanding

Just because you had a toxic manager doesn’t mean you can’t reestablish trust and build a culture of empathy and collaboration. But, unfortunately, since that old manager has been sending the wrong messages to employees, you’ll need to fix that and fast or you’ll end up with a culture of fear that is too difficult to reverse.

Your employee opens up her browser, and out comes a huge sigh of relief. Your toxic manager may be gone, but your employee still wonders if upper management will enact any change or will the culture of fear continue?

A toxic culture is pervasive. Even in a workplace that values remote employees, it can follow them home. Bullying behavior can trickle down.

Remove old practices instilling a culture of fear

Removing toxic work culture requires identifying and addressing the root causes of the dysfunction, which is often lousy management. This includes but is not limited to the removal of bad managers, not asking employees to attend luncheon meetings, and not wasting employees’ valuable time.

You’ve gotten rid of one bad apple; now what?

Give your employees the space and time they need to turn off, refill their batteries, and return to work energized and more productive.

Lunchtime is sacred, and as humans, we simply cannot multitask. Jasmin can either eat her salad in peace or focus her energy on the meeting’s tasks at hand. More often than not, an employee will be more interested in satisfying their hunger than contributing to next year’s marketing plan come 12:30 in the afternoon.

Give them the space and the time they need to turn off, refill their batteries, and return energized for the remainder of their shifts. Encroaching on their time is bad business—promoting work-life balance is a better option. Employees will be all the happier to jump right back to work and focus 100% of their energy on what needs to get done.

Got a meeting with one of your employees? Don’t cancel last minute. Show that you value their time and honor your arrangement. If something comes up and you have to cancel, reassure them that you will give them the chance to meet. On the flip side, if they need to cancel a meeting with you, be sure to hear them out rather than getting angry or annoyed. Responding negatively when they have a legitimate reason to cancel will perpetrate a culture of fear.

As far as meeting with people online is concerned, let your employees have their own space on social media. Imagine your employee who receives a Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram invitation from you. They might feel pressured to accept. If you want to connect with employees but want to keep it professional, use LinkedIn and keep your personal lives out of it.

Establishing a new culture begins with trust

You’re restarting the engine, not rebuilding the wheel. Redefining your workplace culture is a daunting task, but it’s helpful to remember that you’re not starting from scratch. One of the first things you’ll want to do is reestablish trust with employees who may have been aggrieved by their former manager. Tell them your office is an open door and that abuse of any kind, at any level, will no longer be tolerated. Let them know employee opinions and positions are valued and will never be used against them.

Define ideal workplace culture using employee feedback

Find out what worked and what didn’t. This will be a time-consuming yet crucial step to determine the best moves forward in creating a culture that embraces diversity and values honesty. Anonymous surveys are an easy way to get people to tell you what they’re really thinking. Google Forms and SurveyMonkey have intuitive menus, pre-selected questionnaires and can help you sort the data.

Quick tip: When using a Likert scale, always make the number of answer choices even. Otherwise, respondents may choose the middle ground (which tells you almost nothing).

Set clear goals, measure them, and give feedback frequently

Recognition is an essential step towards a positive workplace culture. By showing your employees that you value and reward good work both in and out of the office, employees will be even more motivated to excel. When employees enjoy their work environment, they’ll go above and beyond, and they’ll give that extra push on a project.

Culture is about behavior at the office and how they conduct themselves outside. So if someone on your team helps another employee or volunteers their time, reward their kindness and empathy. Appreciate and reward excellence when serving others, not just your bottom line.

Be flexible to remove the culture of fear

Schedules and family life don’t always blend seamlessly. Appointments, soccer games, and family meetings often get in the way of the 9-5. However, missing a meeting is a lot less painful of a regret than missing a school play, so give your employees room to breathe. Unexpected things happen, and when they do, don’t come down too hard.

This does not mean letting employees get away with unacceptable behavior but if something personal gets in the way of something at the office, let them know they can make it up. Your employees will respect and thank you for it. 88% of people surveyed would consider taking a lower-paying job if it meant more flexibility. More flexible schedules mean attracting more elite candidates.

88% of people would consider taking a lower-paying job if it meant more flexibility.

Promote diversity and transparency

Diversity in the workplace is a significant factor when applicants are considering job offers. Workplace diversity was important not only among white applicants but “72% of women, 89% of African Americans, 80% of Asians, and 70% of Latinos” ranked workforce diversity as necessary in their job search.

Creating a positive, inclusive workplace culture is a natural product of welcoming people from all walks of life and celebrating their differences. So share your pronouns and encourage all employees to do the same. Make diversity part of your company mantra and let people know there is a place for everyone. Then watch as your talent pool becomes the envy of other companies.

Once you’ve attracted grade A talent, strengthen their engagement by promoting a culture of transparency and open communication between departments. This will open doors both literally and figuratively.

Plan infrequent social outings

Make everyone feel welcome. Most employees want to be a part of the team. Social gatherings outside the office can foster a sense of community beyond people’s desks or home offices. Caveats include scheduling time for bringing family members or without employees feeling pressured to show up. Outings should be fun and not just a place to talk shop. Let your people get to know each other.

Last but not least: Recovering from a culture of fear

Allow employees to make mistakes and learn from them. Skills can be taught while attitudes cannot. A culture of fear can lead to more mistakes being made if employees are nervous and afraid to do things wrong at work.

Recreating workplace culture represents an enormous opportunity for both you and your customer base. Don’t act now, and you may find that you not only miss out on an extraordinary opportunity, but you also miss out on a new generation of potential employees and customers who are future-focused. People don’t leave their companies; they leave their managers.

Moreover, as the economy turns in favor of employees, companies wanting to keep top-performing talent will need to ensure employees are engaged and inspired after a lousy manager is removed. The best way to do that is to quickly prioritize reshaping your current workplace culture.

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