No need to spread fear in your management style
Creativity Creative Thinking

If You’re Still Playing with Fear, You’re Playing with Fire

When I tell people I teach classes on organizational culture at a university, I am usually asked what that means. Over the years, I’ve whittled my response down to “Douche-bag Prevention for Managers.” Apparently, I’ve still got plenty of work to do.

Too many managers remain convinced that the best motivator is keeping employees on edge with a strong dose of fear. A 2014 survey of 1,500 CEOs and executives showed that while only 10 percent of CEOs say they motivate with fear, executives ranked fear as the primary motivational tool of their CEOs. In its most egregious form, fear is wielded by a boss with dogmatic authority, one who seems primed to fire for almost any small transgression. Unfortunately for those who ascribe to this management style, employees often respond by suppressing information they know management would rather not hear. Thankfully, we have examples going back to at least 1628 to know the approach doesn’t work in the long run.

You Sank My Battleship!

This summer I had the great fortune of seeing the remarkably preserved Vasa warship in Stockholm. The gigantic ship was barely into its 1628 maiden voyage when it plunged to the bottom of Stockholm’s harbor. How could a disaster such as that befall something so magnificent so quickly? For starters, the men involved in the ship’s top-heavy construction knew of balancing problems from simple pre-launch tests, but did not say anything at the time for fear of upsetting the king. The problem was further compounded when the person involved in assessing the proper amount of ballast weight to be carried denied any wrongdoing, though conclusive evidence to the contrary came to the surface centuries later when the ship was raised from the depths.

This very old-school example illustrates the first problem of the fear-based management style: Your team may be too afraid to speak up when something is wrong. When people are afraid to use creative thinking, to challenge authority, and to point out problems, the consequences can be severe.

The Vasa Ship Museum in Stockholm, Sweden

It’s a Real Grind

Arestia Rosenberg, who gave a great talk last year at Skyword’s Content Rising Summit, recently wrote a terrific piece for The Daily Beast that anecdotally shows how it is possible for employees to still grow and thrive professionally in high-pressure situations—Hollywood film and TV in her case—but at a personal cost. Yes, you may become a tougher and smarter worker through trial by fire, but that is not the only way to get there. Instead, consider the real benefits of having nurturing managers who can strike a balance between encouraging and prodding. Knowing when to pull back is just as important as knowing when to push; otherwise, be prepared to deal with more employee burnout, less creative thinking, and lower retention.

Perhaps the most important takeaway from Arestia’s time in Hollywood is the perspective it offers on bosses: “You learn about what kind of boss you want to be in the future (or in my case, what kind of boss I absolutely didn’t want to be).”

A Look Under the Surface

Beyond the previous Hollywood anecdote, a recent Harvard Business Review article by Sigal Barsade and Olivia O’Neill highlights some extremely high-pressure situations, like US nuclear submarines where top brass instilled “constant fear of being yelled at—for making mistakes, not knowing things, challenging authority, and so on.” While these conditions “made it harder for sailors to think well and act quickly,” a change in leadership brought new creative thinking that yielded dramatic improvements. By replacing negative reinforcement with a management style that empowered the crew to make their own decisions, members “became more confident and accountable.”

Note here that with a fear-based management style there really is no choice but to micromanage since everyone will be afraid of screwing up. If you want to spend less time having to manage everything, then you have to sufficiently trust in and empower your employees.

Put on a Happy Face

Barsade and O’Neill’s article offers some clearly better alternatives to the fear-based culture. Perhaps most heartening was the survey-derived insight that “joy was one of the strongest drivers of employee satisfaction and commitment.” How does that translate to results that would benefit the company directly? The authors go on to note that “Positive emotions are consistently associated with better performance, quality, and customer service—this holds true across roles and industries and at various organizational levels.” For instance, when I am looking to integrate more students into discussions I could try to do that by making them afraid they’ll be called on for an answer, and that that answer will be judged harshly if it’s not satisfactory. Yet this approach would be counterproductive to the overall goal of exploring ideas with each other, as too many would sit in silence, self-censoring until they felt they had the exact right answer. Instead, I encourage students to share their thoughts and examples freely, and to have a laugh about it whenever we can. Over the years, bringing that sense of joy and freedom to the classroom has worked well for generating insights; more companies need to do the same.

If you’re trying to figure out how to keep your best people around and engaged, it’s time to start cultivating joy rather than fear. As an important first step toward that goal, managers need to demonstrate the behaviors they want to see in the rest of the team. If you’re just not feeling it that day, you still have to try to put on a happy face.

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