The reason there are so many articles about the fear-based leadership style is because it’s so prevalent in the workplace. Many managers may not realize they are using fear-based tactics in some instances due to a lack of self-awareness and/or experience as a seasoned leader. Other managers may have learned the style from their bosses and are now modeling the same behavior. The culture of the organization comes into play as well based on their tolerance. Keep in mind that geographical locations can influence the tolerance of fear-based tactics based on societal pressures. Here in lies the issue of allowing the repetitive cycle of using fear-based leadership in the workplace to continue.
On the Receiving End
For the employee on the receiving end of fear-based leadership it can be a very unsettling and troubling time. Additionally, this type of leadership style can exist for extraordinarily long periods of time because the subordinate is in a position where if they file a grievance about their manager then they are perceived as a threat or they risk demonstrating behavior that could be a cause for insubordination, a fire-able offense. When organizations do not perform regular 360 reviews on all of their employees then they must rely on evaluating the team’s body language, hear say, and the performance results of the manager’s uninspired team to make a judgement. As organizations become increasingly flatter it can become easier to have skip-level conversations with their manager’s leaders. However, if the culture is supportive of this type of fear-based environment it can continue to be passed down from one leader to the next subordinate in line and so on. A company is obviously not going to outwardly admit that there would be any type of tolerance for this type of behavior. The bottom-line is that fear-based leadership is not effective long-term. It may gain a short-term result in achieving a goal but the evidence is loud and clear that long-term, the uptick you may have gotten on your results will soon become a much larger down-tick when your churn rate remains high and your most valuable employees just keep stumbling upon other opportunities they simply couldn’t pass up.
Should I Stay or Should I Go?
Before you decide to walk away every time you stumble into a leader who feels the need to control their situation by creating fear-based anxiety for their employees, you may want to spend some time defining your personal limitations on this subject. Also, you should know that leaving one company and moving to another does not necessarily guarantee that you won’t run into another fear-based leader there as well.
Own Your Behavior
Let’s take this cycle one step further. There are reasons why a manager may feel the need to come across in an unsettling way. It could be that some of your own behaviors, unknowingly, may have led them to a point of frustration. There are bad bosses but let’s not forget there are also bad subordinates. It does not justify management’s poor behavior but we can always benefit from learning about how our own behavior can causes the equal and opposite reaction of another person.
Here are a few bad employee behaviors that come to mind:
- Sharing your views and not allowing others to have equal time sharing their views
- Not taking action towards coaching you have received from leadership
- Displaying communication and behavior that can be toxic to the team environment
- Continuously infusing inflexibility such as “we can’t” or “we don’t do it that way here” attitude into group settings
- Promoting yourself at the expense of others
- Showing lack of respect for other people’s time, regardless of their title
- Abusing your work time and using it for personal time
- Exhibiting sloppy work habits that leave the reputation of others on the line
- Consistently over or under communicating or even blocking communication
- Taking the credit of someone’s idea or work as your own
- Undermining your manager, leaving them unable to push initiatives forward
Be a Player’s Coach
Running a team can be very challenging and it takes the right combination of skills to make it look like an art form. Some managers are trying to manage out an employee who may not be the right fit for the team by using fear evoking tactics. A strong leader will be able to coach an employee, demonstrate empathy, and guide an employee to an area where they demonstrate their strengths and perhaps this is remaining with the company but in a different role. Leadership often promotes the employees who are considered high-performers when they are in an individual contributor role. An individual contributor may be excellent at driving a certain performance consistently over time but may not be great at teaching others and being a player’s coach. If this high-performing employee is promoted and does not have the right training to be a person who influences through others, it could lead them to a situation where it becomes more directive than collaborative in nature and their team will go through a never-ending cycle of churn, poor performance, and other behavioral speed bumps. This new leader should not move into a management role without going through a variety of case-scenarios on situational leadership. Here we have another contributor to the cycle of anxiety ridden teams with no sense of personal ownership.
What Your Company Can do to Help
If fear-based leadership is prevalent and you have no guarantee that you can navigate through your career without experiencing this at least once (and perhaps many times over) we need to ask how to stop this cycle in the first place. It begins with the leaders at the top of the organization who are driving the culture, and their tolerance for this type of behavior. It continues with the Human Resources department tracking complaints and working on educating and changing the behavior of those who are leading their employees by using fear invoking tactics. Next you need to educate all your employees on what the different leadership styles are. Which styles have positive attributes? Which ones you do not want to emulate? What is the company’s stance on fear-based leadership? When promoting new managers from individual contributor positions they should be educated on what is a desired leadership behavior for inspiring others, and what is not. Provide these new managers with real-world examples to make this experience more relatable. Do random and routine 360 feedback survey’s which give employees a safe way to express themselves and help your company avoid unnecessary churn of good employees. Keep the conversation going and don’t assume that just because you have held one training program on this topic that it would be sufficient long-term.
Be the Change
One person can create positive change in the workplace and make a difference for everyone else. Breaking the fear-based leadership cycle all starts with you – chose to be a leader who can coach, listen, train and influence others to create positive results, positive employees and positive outcomes for all.
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