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Fear is a lazy approach to managing people

Even in good times, some employers use fear tactics against their employees, but a recent study shows that the problem is growing significantly as the economy continues to falter. This is discouraging and hurtful to individual employees, of course, but it is also detrimental to the overall health of an organization. In short, no good can come of using fear-based management, and yet it persists.

The recent press release ‘National Study Finds Employee Trust Sacrificed in the Financial Crisis’ really opened my eyes. It covers a national study of leadership funded by the University of Phoenix, where researchers realized earlier this year that the financial crisis created a unique opportunity to test out managerial ‘fear theories’ in near real time. They did the research over this summer, and published this autumn.

The results are dismaying, but not surprising. Belligerent behavior and eroding employee trust are two of the top leadership trends in the financial crisis, according to researchers Dr. Ruby Rouse and Dr. Richard Schuttler. Employees repeatedly described threatening communications such as:

In good times or bad, fear is a lazy approach to managing people — and a counterproductive one. It makes employees feel disposable and intimidated rather than valued. It also hurts an organization’s effectiveness even more than it hurts employee feelings.

In an article titled ‘Fear is the organization killer,’ Sam Smith wisely comments:

The truth is that way too many American companies today act as though their employees are some combination of robot and peasant foot soldier… For all the talk we’ve heard over the last generation about flattened org charts and mining employees for wisdom and cross-functional, empowered teams and cultivating learning organizations, many people still work in places where orders flow from top to bottom, where there’s precious little communication flow up the ladder, and where the value of an idea is judged by the title of the originator. One of the artifacts of this kind of organization is that it’s very good at fostering fear.

Many managers attempt to use fear as a motivational tool, Smith points out. And as the economy worsens, external factors can drive fear, no matter how good the workplace and the managers might be. He continues:

Regardless of the cause, though, fear is the enemy of engagement. Workers driven by fear may be good at toeing the line and obeying the company’s list of Thou Shalt Nots (in fact, this is probably what they’re best at), but humans instinctively seek to escape the causes of fear, and if you’re tense and seeking release, you aren’t putting your heart and soul into your work. Fear dampens creativity and it motivates a variety of behaviors that are antithetical to the company’s best interests.

In addition, fearful workers instinctively seek to bend any source of power to a personal advantage instead of investing it in the good of the organization. They use their ability, their influence, their leverage and their knowledge of the organization to weave for themselves a cocoon that will hopefully shield them from the source of their fear.

Have you seen examples of management, in these stressful times, falling back on fear-based tactics? What is the best way to keep the focus on engagement, rather than fear, in the current economy? We would love to hear your feedback from the front lines.
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Filed under:Career, Management

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