Why fear based leadership will never work

fear based leadership - are you a snake in the grass?
Just because you aren’t scared, doesn’t mean someone else in your team isn’t

Fear is a powerful force that most people have grown up with in one form or another. Everywhere you look, you will have observed the effect of fear on people’s lives. It comes from your friends, your family, the television, movies and the newspaper.

We all grew up with fear, so we are well accustomed to changing our behaviour to avoid it.

Eat your vegetables or you won’t get ice cream. Fear of not getting ice cream while your brother does.

Stop talking or you’ll go to the principal’s office. Fear of going to see the principal who tells your parents.

Give me your lunch money or I’ll punch you. Fear of getting punched in the face.

Study hard or you’ll never get into university. Fear of not having a job and being a loser in life. 

We all grew up with fear in one form or another, and we still deal with it. Sometimes it is hard to see it for what it is.

Fear lives in the workplace

Fear also lives in your workplace. It kills motivation, ruins productivity and stops improvement. Often, fear doesn’t even originate from anywhere specific. It can come from inside us, through lack of confidence and self-doubt.

“If I stuff this up I’ll lose my job.” You know you probably won’t, but your brain can play strange tricks.

The worst kind of fear is the kind that originates from people. You know the people. The people who walk into a room and have an “edge” to them. The ones that people don’t question. The ones that speak to others in a way that undermines them and makes them question themselves.

Unfortunately, these people are often in leadership positions. It saddens me sometimes to see leaders like this, because they are living in a bubble. A bubble of ignorance where there are few contrasting views and counterpoints, where things are black and white and going straight, not left or right, nor down a bendy road.

Why fear based leadership is ineffective

1. Fear based leadership causes avoidance

People don’t like fear. Your team don’t like being fearful and neither do you. That’s why when your boss is a tyrant, you might choose to take the long way around the office than walk past his desk. That’s why you take longer lunches than usual, because it means that she won’t be able to hassle you so easily.

If your teams are fearful of you, it is guaranteed that they will limit the amount of time spent talking to you or being in your proximity. This limits your ability to build rapport, to understand what is happening in your team and to be involved in discussions that could be important.

The more out of the loop you are, the more you lose control. The more you try to regain control, the more fearful your team become.

Tip: You might not think you’re the type of leader who people fear. But fear is different for everybody. The tough, grizzled old contractor might not fear you, but how does the shy, introverted accountant in the corner respond to your behaviour? Monitor your actions and those of your team. Look for avoidant behaviour or signs that your team are uncomfortable and adjust your approach.

2. Fear based leadership causes people to change behaviour to stop criticism, but the root cause remains

Often fear based leadership causes people to adjust their behaviour to stop being the target of criticism and avoid being berated. To you, this may look great – your team are doing exactly what you want! Changing behaviour to avoid repercussion is often much easier than speaking up – but unfortunately, this never changes anything.

Be careful – what if what you want is unproductive, pointless or doesn’t make any sense? How will you ever know this is the case if people aren’t telling you? The communication lines need to be open if you are to learn and improve, because you can’t do it all by yourself.

The best people I’ve ever had in my team are those who suggest improvements to how things are working, and they do it in the right way. When this happens, you know that you appear open to feedback and improvement opportunities, which gives other people a chance to contribute and gives you a chance to improve.

Tip: Take time to ask for feedback about how things are going – and be sincere about it. Take it on board. Show your team that you are willing to take on feedback by adjusting things where you can. Even if it seems inconsequential to you, making a change put forward by your team can make a big impression.

Wow! He actually listened to us! 

If you’re even reading this, there is a good chance that you don’t consider yourself to be a fear-mongering tyrant, but it’s important to notice when fear is at play in your team and workplace. Every team member is different and what you consider to be innocuous leadership behaviour may actually be causing a fearful reaction within your team.

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