Leadership and the Fear of Retribution

By | August 22, 2018

[August 22, 2018]  Academic studies show that the majority of employees in the American workforce are afraid to speak up because of the fear of retribution.  The cause is directly related to poor leadership and this fear is always present.

“The forces of retribution are always listening.  They never sleep.” – Meg Greenfield, American editorial writer

We all know that organizations are complex and difficult to keep on track.  We also know that the leadership, which is the lubricant that keeps everything running smoothly, is the key to success in the workplace.

If such fear is cultivated and allowed to grow untended, it will grow into a culture of suppression.  The duty of all good leaders is to thwart that trend and to ensure everyone is aware that open and honest discussion of all things benefits us all.  Discussion without fear of retribution is the ideal goal.

In the United States today that is not the case in our universities and many businesses.  You may not criticize the status quo without fear of retribution.  It is unfortunate that in large companies, like Google and Apple, that you must espouse a specific political ideology or your employment will be terminated.

The fear of retribution (aka “payback”) has serious consequences.  Worker dissatisfaction rates and absenteeism are higher, non-productive work behaviors thrive, reduced performance and turnover are more common, and the fear that causes it grows if not addressed directly and forcefully by senior leaders.

Here are a few factors that lead to a culture where individuals are afraid to share their voice out of a fear of retribution:1

  • Regular negative feedback from leaders.
  • Shooting down of new ideas out of hand.
  • Ignoring feedback.
  • Fear of demotion or job loss.
  • Raising uncomfortable issues draws attention to individuals or groups who make suggestions.
  • Perception that there is no procedural justice.

The safety of silence becomes preferable.  Organizational leaders, who desire positive change, will never get there as long as this fear exists.


  1. https://www.decision-wise.com/decisionwise-benchmark-study/
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Author: Douglas R. Satterfield

Hello. I'm Doug and I provide at least one article everyday on some leadership topic. I welcome comments and also guests who would like to write an article. Thanks for reading my blog.

23 thoughts on “Leadership and the Fear of Retribution

  1. Mike Baker

    I was fired from a job once for exposing the boss’s son for stealing. I made the decision to fight it and hired a lawyer who did this kind of work. After several days of negotiations and little cooperation from my ex-boss, I decided to take him to court. Of course, he was found guilty of illegal retribution. In this case, it was based on the whistleblower act. I got back pay, my job back, an apology, and yet I left the company a few months later because of the harassment I was getting from the morons in the company. Even when you’re right, you can be wrong.

    1. Kenny Foster

      Right. When you encourage and reward honesty, that is what you get. When you fail to do that, you get other bad things happening, often in unexpected ways.

    1. Andrew Dooley

      Thanks, Dennis. Yes, a really good start to overcoming the fear of retribution.

  2. Shawn C. Stolarz

    There will always be crappy leaders. I see it all the time. That is why we hear about a crisis in leadership. I’m not surprised at all.

  3. Jonathan B.

    The further up I go into management, the less I’ve seen this problem. It is, I think, more likely to occur at lower levels of leadership but occasionally we see it elsewhere. For example, Hillary Clinton is known for ‘payback’ to anyone who crosses her. She is a classic example that works well here. Thanks for letting me have my say.

    1. Nick Lighthouse

      Same here. As I climbed the management ladder, the less I see of it. Let’s hope that those who are poor leaders are weeded out along the way.

  4. Gil Johnson

    I know some really bad leaders and this is their way of gaining and maintaining power over others. It shows a high level of immaturity.

  5. Eddie Ray Anderson,

    All of us at one time or another have been subject to work-related retribution. I think this is what this discussion is about and its effects real. The goal is to remove the most negative aspects of retribution (for what it really is as opposed to proper punishment for wrongdoing).

  6. Lynn Pitts

    A difficult subject on a crucial topic. This is another opportunity to learn how NOT to be a leader.

  7. Max Foster

    Retribution is, of course, very real and often exercised by those who are poor leaders. We see this very often to our chagrin and consternation. I would hope that real, unnecessary retribution would not occur but it does and its impacts (almost always negative) are big. Thanks for a great article, Gen. Satterfield on this important topic.

  8. Bill Sanders, Jr.

    Good quote from Meg Greenfield. She’s one heck of a lady and knows her business and knows people. I believe most leaders, esp senior ldrs, know people pretty well. Well enough to understand their desires and motivations.

  9. Anita

    Another good article for my files on leadership in action. Thanks, Gen. Satterfield.

  10. Albert Ayer

    I think Army Capt is right about fear in the workplace. The ideal will never be achieved because of human nature. But, and this is a big but, there is no reason for us to reduce it from an unmanageable level to something more humane.

  11. Army Captain

    Yes, a very real problem in the workplace. However, I do think it has always been there and always will be present. Some pressure to perform must be present for many people would not otherwise do anything.

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