In a contemporary context dominated by reports of the historical institutional abuse of children and young people in residential children's homes, and where the voice of workers is largely absent, this study explores the views and experiences of 26 workers in the Republic of Ireland regarding relationship‐based practice. Using an exploratory, qualitative approach and informed by ‘appreciative inquiry’; semi‐structured interviews were undertaken with 26 residential care workers. The findings highlight that relationship‐based practice has not been fully understood and/or embraced in practice because of a culture of fear that has permeated the Irish residential childcare system. Using theoretical concepts associated with the sociology of fear, the paper explores their effects on practice and argues that these are amplified given the current low status of residential care workers, the impact of media reports and the influence of current discourses around professional practice in which ‘objective’ and ‘emotionally detached’ practice is viewed as synonymous with efficiency and effectiveness. The paper ends by considering implications for professional practice in residential childcare settings.