Fear of leadership is something that I see hindering many workplaces. Even the most inclusive, friendly and collaborative leaders will come up against this at some point. The problem is, when it’s happening to you, you might not even notice it. When team members fear their leaders, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they cower when they are near.
Fear of leadership can be quite subtle and less obvious than you might think. I try to be inclusive, collaborative and approachable when I lead teams. However, I still occasionally notice signs that team members hold almost too much respect for my leadership role.
Why Team Members Have a Fear of Leadership
In my experience, team members who are fearful of their leaders are often not scared of the person. They are scared of the role and the authority that surrounds it.
Team members may be fearful because they know that you could make their life difficult at work. You might give them a poor performance review or micromanage them so they have no autonomy and freedom.
Or perhaps you might damage their reputation by speaking unfavourably about them to your colleagues or even your own boss, which may damage their chances of taking on better opportunities in your organisation. This is particularly true if you are perceived as having a high degree of influence in your organisation.
Your team members are probably more scared of you than you think!
Signs That Team Members Might Fear Your Leadership
When team members fear their managers, the signs might not be completely apparent. In my experience, fear of leadership is more about what you don’t observe … than what you do.
Team members who fear their leaders will often hold back their opinions, fail to put forward ideas and they will not question the direction or opinion of their managers.
When your people readily accept your direction without asking any questions or raising any concerns, it could be because your direction is perfect and beyond question.
Or, it could be because they don’t want to argue with you or disagree with your opinion.
If you’re in a situation where your team members fear you or respect your position too much, you are likely to get sub-optimal outcomes for your team.
Because a team where only the leader’s opinion counts is one where diversity of opinion does not exist, and where all the ideas are coming from only one place.
You may also find that team members are afraid to speak up when they feel stressed and overworked. Over time this can lead to burnout, absenteeism and give you a feeling of false confidence. You might feel like your team has everything under control. But really, they might not be telling you the problems.
Learn More: The Unintended Consequences of Leading By Fear.
Ways to Reduce the Fear of Leadership In Your Team
I want my teams to be coming to the table with ideas, critiquing my own and telling me where I might have missed something.
To do this, we need to create an environment where people feel comfortable raising objections and ideas without fear of consequences.
Step 1: Ask For Opinions
The first step to take is to start asking for opinions when you propose ideas or are suggesting changes in your team. Sometimes it feels like you are open to opinions, but unless you specifically ask for them you may be missing an opportunity.
Depending on your team members, they may consider your direction to be beyond question. Therefore, they aren’t likely to speak up unless you specifically give them the opportunity.
The willingness of your team members to contribute their opinions will obviously depend on their personality types, as well as their cultural backgrounds. Some cultures have a high “power distance“, which is the degree to which people accept that power is distributed unequally.
People from a high power-distance country are likely to respect leaders more and be less likely to push back on instructions or provide their opinions.
Each team member is unique. Some will speak up easily and others will wait to be invited. Some might need more coaxing to bring out their opinions. Try gathering feedback in group meetings, or individually. You might see different results, depending on the person.
Step 2: Use the Opinions to Shape Your Actions
Once people are speaking up with their opinions, that’s only half the battle. The next step is to actually use those opinions to help the team.
If you ask for input and then promptly ignore it, people will soon learn that there is no point in providing feedback at all. This is a sure fire way to show people that you don’t mean what you say. The next time you ask, you’ll likely hear silence.
If it happens that you can’t act on feedback, explain why. Then people understand that you’ve at least taken the time to consider it.
Showing your willingness to consider opinions and change your approach is a key way to show your team that their opinion matters.
Step 3: Set Boundaries
While it’s nice to have an inclusive team with diverse opinions, you don’t want to be in a situation where your opinion is constantly disputed. It’s almost always good to get feedback, but once you’ve made your decision, you need it to be respected.
Otherwise you get a situation where everything you say is up for discussion. It’s a fine line. While it’s not great to run a dictatorship, a team that pushes back on everything you say is not good either.
It’s important to set boundaries and to clearly explain where team input is appropriate, and where it isn’t.
Step 4: Build Your Confidence
If you are lacking confidence, opinionated team members are going to have you breaking out in a cold sweat. You’ll feel like they are challenging your leadership and being unsupportive.
You might even feel like they are disputing your ability to lead, which can be uncomfortable. The more insecure you feel, the more likely you are going to feel like putting your team members “in their place”.
This means you’re more likely to resort to micromanagement and running a dictatorship. To help you feel more confident, it’s good to reframe your thinking.
Firstly, remember that you don’t need to have all the answers. Second, remember that even if you do have the answers, it’s good to have your team feel included in decision-making.
Sometimes, the best way to build confidence is to do things that scare you.
Got an opinionated team? Ask directly for their feedback and understand their issues. Instead of backing away and trying to shut down uncomfortable conversations, open yourself up to them.
Only by pushing yourself out there will you start to see results and gain confidence.
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You might feel like you’re a friendly, inclusive, approachable leader. But you might find that your team members and others in your workplace are more scared of you than you think.
What other problems happen when people are fearful of leaders? What suggestions do you have to help managers fix a fear of leadership in their teams?