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Are You Being Managed by Fear?

There are many ways to manage people. Some managers motivate their teams through timely feedback and positive reinforcement. However, there are some who prefer to motivate their teams through fear. Make no mistakes, managing by fear can be effective. It can get the job done. I’m thinking of Scarlett O’Hara running her husband’s lumber mill with prisoners. The mill was profitable, but Ashley Wilkes didn’t feel right seeing the prisoners beaten and treated so poorly. It’s not a big scene in the movie, but it was a device for showing how ruthless Scarlett could be when it came to restoring her beloved Tara. Sadly, many managers who use fear aren’t looking to recreate anything as beautiful as a 19th century plantation.

It’s not uncommon for those in charge to have a “command-and-control” approach to managing their teams. These are the managers who you can hear screaming behind closed conference room doors. In short, they don’t trust their teams and are, as a result, very quick to make negative assumptions.  The consequence of this type of management is a workplace setting rife with negativity—- suspicion, envy, doubt, conflict, you name the issue, it’s probably there. This means that many of the employees are hunkered down just waiting to hatch their escape plan (higher turnover). And, really, who can perform well under those circumstances? So, the manager who was acting with the intention of having a high-performing team ends up with exactly the opposite.

One article cited 10 signs that your workplace is managed by fear. When these are all present at the same time, it doesn’t sound like the type of place in which anyone could thrive.  In an office where it’s all about face-time and how the higher-ups perceive you, and less about the quality of your work, that’s a poor sign. Often, those who aren’t perceived well are the subject of gossip. People are eager to discuss who is rising in favor and who is falling. All of the politics can be exhausting. I imagine they’re all thinking, “Glad it’s not me!” or “Did you hear anything about me?” Guess what? That’s fear. When you have this type of political climate, how can anyone trust anyone else? Ideas can be stolen, credit taken like a mint in a candy dish. How do any of us really win this game again?

Do you care?

If you want to play politics, you can’t possibly care about the team on an individual level, that would just get in the way. Anyone who has watched Gossip Girl knows this (don’t you judge me!).  This means that the thing that management really cares about are numbers. Obsessing over the minutia and the numbers, implying that a worker is only as valuable as the sum of their metrics is very typical of a workplace run by fear. In my experience, managers look better when their team looks better, this means investing in the team and supporting them.  Metrics are a great tool for determining where you need to build in efficiencies, but they aren’t the end-all-be-all.

Let’s face it. If you’ve hired a strong team, you shouldn’t have to manage by fear. Giving your employees some autonomy is a sign of your trust and faith in their abilities. That goes a long way in a worker’s mind — doesn’t it in yours? Having myriad rules to govern only stands in the way of building in more efficient practices.

Managers who are managing by fear want their team to be friendly– but only on their terms. Communication and friendship lead to people comparing notes. That can be detrimental to a fear-monger’s team. Teamwork should be encouraged, and not a suspicious activity. It’s fantastic to be working in a group where you can bounce ideas off of each other and get a fresh perspective on a problem.  So, how do you find out what’s going on in your company, division, or department?  If all communication must come through your manager, that’s a problem. Not getting any communication about the company is a bad sign. Getting it through the grapevine might not be reliable. Hearing about it on the nightly news is unacceptable. I’d put Information Hoarding on the list of 7 deadly workplace sins.

Of course, there will be those few people who understand the game and how it’s played. They’ll play the role of yes-man/woman until they’re no longer able to do so. Leaders who lead by fear love these people because it’s easier to hear that you’re right than that you’re wrong. Fear-based leaders are likely quite insecure themselves.

If you say to yourself, “I’m lucky to at least have a job,” then, my friend, you are likely being ruled by fear at work.  You shouldn’t have to justify why you need to go into work and perform when you’d rather do anything but. Either way, whether it’s the job itself or the culture, a change is likely due.

Doing the right thing

It would seem that cutting employees down and giving out only destructive criticism will lead only to poor performance, distrust, and an overall negative culture. The most important thing a manager can do is create an environment that is conducive to productivity– expel fear and welcome feedback from the employees. If your team doesn’t feel comfortable being frank with you for fear of losing their job, you’re failing.  Mistakes are inevitable. Humans aren’t perfect, but good managers know who their strong people are and help to propose a solution to the issue rather than throw the baby out with the bathwater.  It should be well-known that no one should be fearful of making a mistake or – gasp! – disagreeing with the boss.  Environments where feedback flows freely both ways are much more positive than those where feedback only goes in one direction.

Remember that companies and managers have reputations just like people. Attracting the top people to your organization and team will certainly be more difficult the worse your reputation.

About The Author
Martina Martucci
Martina Scheuring Martucci is an expert in recruitment and is passionate about connecting the right people with the right opportunities. She holds an M.Ed in Policy Planning and Evaluation from the University of Pittsburgh and an M.S. in Human Resources, Training & Development from LaRoche College.

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