Collaborative Leadership Blog

Workplaces Free From Fear

Trust and fear cannot co-exist in the same place. People who pretend they can co-exist are afraid to admit what their body knows: managerial fear overpowers trust every time* –Liz Ryan, “Ten Unmistakable Signs Of A Fear-Based WorkplaceForbes, March 7, 2017–

Sexual harassment, discrimination on the basis of race, gender or sexual orientation, cyberbullying, in-workplace bullying, and fear of retaliation if you speak up—these are some of the behaviors that create fear-based workplaces. Here are 4 disturbing statistics:

  • 81% of women have experienced some form of sexual harassment at work (National Public Radio, October 2017)
  • Hiring discrimination against African Americans has not declined in 25 years (Harvard Business Review, Oct. 11, 2017)
  • In a National Institutes of Health study in 2017, 30% saying they were bullied at work, leading to incivility and lost productivity (Journal of Social Psychology, 2018)
  • The Pew Research Center found that one-in-five LGBTQ respondents (21%) said they had been treated unfairly by an employer because of their sexual orientation or gender identity (2013)

One of the primary tenets of a healthy, safe workplace is psychological safety—that every worker has a right to feel free from fear, whether it comes from physical, psychological, emotional, of mental abuse. Without psychological safety, there is no trust or respect. Without trust and respect, the workplace becomes toxic and unproductive.

It is leadership’s moral and ethical obligation to create workplaces that are safe and healthy. Here are 6 actions that can be taken to create workplaces that are free from fear:

  • Freedom From Fear is a Right: As a policy, leaders can assert psychological safety as a right of every employee
  • More Than a Policy: Leaders are the chief cultural officers and need to create leadership cultures that embody the right to be free from fear; it is a systemic shift, involving all business processes, policies, and work practices
  • Zero Tolerance: There must be zero tolerance for any act of abuse against another person. This means one strike and you’re out
  • Holding Offenders Accountable: Leadership must ensure that anyone who acts abusively against another, including leaders and mangers, is held accountable and dismissed from the company
  • No Retaliation: There must be absolutely no retaliation against anyone who speaks up against workplace abuse or discrimination, and apply the zero tolerance policy if there is
  • Transparency: Sunlight is the best disinfectant. All actions taken need to be made public to the workforce if there is to be trust and confidence

The culture of the workplace is a sacred trust given to leadership to create, nurture and protect. Creating cultures that are safe and respect the dignity of every worker is essential for any organization to be innovative and productive.


*Dr. Edward Marshall is an Adjunct Professor in Management at the Fuqua School of Business, Duke University; ICF certified executive coach, Lifetime Top 15 Trust Thought Leader, and author of the forthcoming book: The New Age of Collaboration: Leadership for the 21st Century, 2020. You can contact him at or (919)265-9616