The Unintended Consequences of Leading By Fear

leading by fear

Leading by fear still seems to common in our workplaces. I have seen it often throughout my career. Many companies still show a culture of fear, even at a time where society is becoming more progressive and entrepreneurial.

One of the problems is that leading by fear can work. Fear is a very effective motivator, even if it involves an unpleasant sensation. There is no doubt that leading by fear can get things done. For humans, fear is a primal motivator that can prevent the lion from eating us.

That is, when there were lots of lions around. In a work environment, there are no lions. Only people.

What Are Fearful Team Members Scared Of?

A fearful team member is likely to be scared of:

  • Losing their job
  • Suffering damage to their reputation
  • Being made to look bad in front of their colleagues; and
  • Feeling worthless and bad at their job.

Even if you don’t consider yourself to be a scary leader, you may be causing fear in your team just because of your position of authority. So be careful to monitor how your team behaves. Are you the source of their fear?

Leading By Fear Can Work, So Why Does It Matter?

Fear is a powerful motivator, there is no doubt  about that. However, leading by fear has a number of consequences that I’ve noticed during my career.

Let’s take a look at some of them.

1. Leading By Fear Stops Teamwork

leading by fear - stops teamworkTeamwork thrives when people are “in it together” and trying to accomplish a common goal. Unfortunately, when you have a fearful team member, they have a stronger, individual goal – to avoid the source of their fear.

This fear-based goal will win. Instead of collaborating with others, a fearful team member will likely steamroll people, or go around them, to accomplish their goal faster.

Collaboration takes time, which a fearful person doesn’t feel they have.

2. Leading By Fear Creates Workplace Gangs

So what happens when you have not just one scared person, but a whole team? Sometimes, they form a collective that works to get things done at all costs.

Collectively motivated by fear, they will join forces to do their work, at the expense of the productivity of other teams. Workplace gangs will:

  • Avoid following proper process, if they feel it will slow them down
  • Prioritise their work above the work of any other team
  • Stop communicating with other teams, because people may question what they’re doing (which will also slow them down).

Interestingly, many workplace gangs will justify themselves by saying they are simply supporting their strong leader to accomplish their goals.

In reality, most of the time, it’s a group of people with a shared motivation – fear.

3. Leading By Fear Stops People From Speaking Up

leading by fear - hands upWhen you lead by fear, people stop offering their opinions. Instead, scary leaders are stuck in a vacuum where they receive very little feedback.

Fearful team members don’t see the point in speaking up, as they are fearful of being criticised for their ideas. I’ve observed meetings where a whole team stays silent, without offering any feedback to the leader. Then, when the meeting is over, all you hear is how much they disagree with the leader’s approach.

The real problem with this is that a fearful team may do things they know are going to fail, because they are so scared to say anything.

They can see the pending disaster, but they’ll just keep going. This does not lead to positive results.

4. Leading By Fear Kills Confidence in Team Members

Perhaps the most damaging consequence of fear based leadership is that it destroys the confidence of a team. When somebody is constantly belittled, criticised and discredited, sometimes their fear makes them begin to believe it’s true.

I’ve seen very experienced and competent people lose their confidence after prolonged bullying by fear-based leaders. Once they’ve lost their confidence, the other problems begin. They stop speaking up, they stop collaborating. Basically, they turn into the type of team member that they never wanted to be.

Leading by fear is a dangerous game to play. At first, it might seem like it gets results. But watch out for the negative consequences that may be lying just below the surface.

When have you seen fear in your workplace? What were the consequences? Let me know in the comments below!

By |2018-08-07T06:47:54+00:00August 7th, 2018|Organisational Culture|

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