Why Do Managers Lead with Fear?

I am currently working with a manager who told his team, “If this campaign isn’t perfect when we launch, some of you will be looking for a new job.” Yikes. That’s almost as inspiring as telling your team, “Terminations will continue until morale improves.” Although the manager didn’t share his threat with us, several of his employees did.

The big question is: why would a manager feel the need to manage with fear? It’s tough to get a manager relying on fear to self-examine and admit this, but in most cases this strategy results from the manager projecting their own lack of confidence and fear. When these managers lack confidence and are fearful of potentially failing, they may not even realize that they are projecting their own fear onto others.

When team members operate in fear and focus solely on survival, they no longer have their primary focus set on executing the mission and making decisions that are in the best interest of the organization. Even worse, great employees seldom stick around a fearsome leader. Employees who produce stellar results earn reputations that put them in high demand by other managers and organizations, and they won’t hesitate to leave for an organization with a healthier culture.

When working with previous cases of fear leading managers, these managers most often exhibited several other characteristics that helped solidify the culture of fear they had created.

Blamed others, but claimed the credit: When things went wrong, fear leading managers were quick to blame their own team members, or team members in other departments. When things went well, however, these managers were usually quick to point out all the things they had done to make the outcome successful.

Trash talked: Fear leading managers sometimes have a habit of talking poorly about almost everyone in the organization. This leaves anyone who ever interacted with them wondering, “What do they say about me behind my back?” leading to a lose of trust in the manager. 

Used threats: When managers told their team they might be looking for new jobs if their next campaign was not successful, they conveyed to team members that they were not qualified for their jobs. By using threats, they made it clear to employees that mistakes were not acceptable. When this environment is created, employees are usually not likely to share their ideas and the team or organization, loses progress in the areas of innovativeness and creativity. 

Withheld praise: For whatever reason, fear leading managers usually do not acknowledge the excellent work often done by their team members. This can lead to low morale and lack of engagement. 70% of an employee’s satisfaction is in direct relation to their relationship they have with their managers. When that relationship suffers, engagement suffers.

Withheld information: When managers chose to communicate with employees strictly on a “need to know” basis, it resulted in very few team members having all the pieces of the puzzle to be successful. This made it difficult for them to make decisions, be prepared or succeed. With a lack of honest, direct, and timely communication, everyone wanted to play it safe for fear of making a bad decision.

Didn’t delegate: Because fear based managers didn’t trust their team to get the job done the way they would do it, they spent their time on day-to-day operational tasks instead of working on strategic projects that would have the greatest impact on the team and organization. Fear based managers see delegation as a lose of control. Whereas strong leaders see delegation as a way to develop their team, strengthening the individuals and allowing the manager to then work on the success of the team and organization.

Can a manager known for leading with fear, change their negative reputation? The good news is that with a significant change in their leadership style, yes, they can. The bad news is that it takes consistent repetition of positive leadership behaviors over a long period of time to earn a more positive reputation.

The following 7 actions will help leaders build a positive reputation and take their leadership skills to an even higher level.

Know yourself: Collect feedback to better understand your strengths as a leader and where you have opportunities for development. This will help you craft a leadership style that will maximize the number of people who are highly engaged and love coming to work to help you and your team succeed.

Communicate a clear vision and goals: Most people want to work for a manager with a positive vision of their organization’s future. Employees want to know what goals will turn that vision into a reality, and what they are contributing to the realization of the vision.

Take action: Goals are all about “I think we can.” When you take action and accomplish your goals, you develop confidence because you feel you are in control and have mastery over your organizational life.

Accept responsibility: When things go wrong, great leaders are quick to take responsibility for ensuring that the problem is fixed and doesn’t happen a second time. Great leaders may not say they are personally to blame for the problem, but they are quick to say, “I take full responsibility for ensuring this doesn’t happen again.”

Give credit where credit is due: Almost everyone has a high need to be valued and appreciated for their contributions. Great leaders know that providing people with recognition for their successful contributions is a significant part of building strong relationships with employees.

Encourage growth and development: Hold quarterly meetings with each of your direct reports to review their goals and to determine what they are working on to help them grow and develop. This will most likely mean that you are encouraging your team members to be willing to take a risk. Encouraging risk is also encouraging people to be comfortable with the sometimes-scary possibility of failure. Taking a risk, however, is the polar opposite of paralysis by fear.

Delegate: Trusting others and being able to appropriately delegate is the key to your next promotion. Communicate the desired result, and then put the appropriate safeguards in place to follow-up and ensure its success.

Managers who lead with a strategy of fear may be feared, but they will never be respected. When a manager utilizes fear as their strategy, I can guarantee one thing will happen: team members will eventually band together to undermine their manager. These seven tips, when put into action and consistently practiced over a long period of time, will help you be the leader who instead earns a strong reputation for building a culture of trust and the ability to produce significant results.

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