Many leaders believe that to create accountability among employees, those employees must fear the outcome if they don’t do what they’re told. That may mean everything from being yelled at to getting fired for not meeting goals.
But does that kind of management really work? In a new book, “Leading Without Fear,” author Laurie Cure argues that a culture of fear can be debilitating to the employee, the leader and the company. In a recent interview with Anita Bruzzese, she said it’s time we started to consider our workplace fears, and how those fears may impact how we lead.
AB: What is the impact on an organization when employees are afraid of the leader?
LK: Fear takes on a life of its own in an organization. People generally respond to fear in one of two ways; the typical flight or fight response. For the leader, the more indirect implications might be communication breakdowns, lack of motivation, blind obedience, or passive aggressive types of behavior from their employees. The more significant implementations can be impact to department or organizational outcomes; including financial targets, customer satisfaction or quality metrics. Ultimately, in environments of fear, people are not able to perform effectively. Leaders might also see low employee satisfaction scores and increase complaints to human resources or compliance venues.
AB: Can you give a couple of examples of what a leader might do to make employees fear him or her?
LK: At its core, fear is about threat. In my book, I discuss the language of fear which reflects not only language, but behaviors that induce fear. What I also stress is that these behaviors usually must be frequent and repeated to be fear-inducing.
Some common ways leaders subtly introduce fear is through belittling comments, sarcasm or threats of job loss. They might think they are joking as a way to motivate people, but it actually has the opposite effect. Another common behavior I observe is when they create “in group” and “out group.” They will include certain people in important information and not others, or some get invited to participate and others do not.
AB: What are a few things that leaders can do to alleviate this fear?
LK: One of the greatest strategies a leader can use to reduce fear is to give people real or perceived control over their situation. This might mean involving them in changes or decisions that impact their work or ensuring that communication is as transparent as possible.
Secondly, we must provide high levels of support when people are in environments of fear.
A final strategy is to avoid the language of fear. Be aware of how your behavior as a leader is being perceived by others. Are you intimidating? Do you ridicule others? Are you making ethical decisions? When we consistently avoid behaviors that drive threat, we naturally reduce fear.
AB: When eliminating this fear, how can leaders still create accountability?
LK: First, we must set clear expectations. When employees know what they are responsible for and how they are expected to perform, we reduce the uncertainty and hence the fear. At this stage, we must also provide feedback. Because when we withhold feedback, we elevate uncertainty. People fill in the gaps and write their own story.
Second, we have to achieve mutual commitment. People have to be positively motivated to do the work. This requires discussion about why we need to engage in certain tasks/projects. This also requires that we link the “why” to something that is meaningful to people. When we ask employees to just do their job or they will lose it, fear is the result.
Finally, we have to hold people responsible for the commitments they make in the workplace. This means we offer positive feedback when people are on track and we have compassionate crucial conversations when they are not.
AB: In the book you also address that leaders can also experience fear. What do they have to be afraid of?
LK: Leaders are also employees and their role is magnified in the organization. They will all have the same fears about job loss, security, belonging and being successful, often to a larger degree. They manage higher levels of risk both within and outside the organization. They are stepping out on a ledge often in support of their teams/organization and these increased risks elevate fear.
AB: How do their fears show up in their performance?
LK: Fear-based leaders often have a great deal of their own fears – many are using denial as a coping mechanism. Without the ability or self-awareness to manage their own fear, they will often “pass it down” the line to employees. They might not know how else to do it.
AB: How can they overcome their fears?
LK: Leaders use the same strategies as employees to overcome fear. They must be self-aware, assess their unconscious goals around their behavior and determine what support and control they need to obtain over their situation.
AB: Is being afraid always a bad thing?
LK: Not at all. Fear is an excellent signal, but it cannot be a way of life. What we want to avoid is using fear as a motivator. Some leaders believe that a little fear actually keeps everyone on their toes. I maintain the belief that creating safe, open work environments is a better way to ensure innovation, creativity and productivity. Organizations that do this have stronger results.
AB: What is a fear you are facing today and how are you overcoming it?
LK: As an entrepreneur, my fears are similar to others. I continue to challenge myself about how to stay on the edge. What do I need to continue my growth and can I do that in way that serves my customers? Part of my job is growing people and in order to that, I need to ensure that I am strong, confident and living my purpose. Our fears never abandon us. Our job is to hear them, listen to them, and act from those messages.