Would you rather be a leader who is feared or a leader who is respected?

Choose wisely.

Sure, fear can be a motivating force because not all motivation is positive. If you get projects completed only through fear, you are not rising to your full leadership potential and you are developing a team with a composition of drastically reduced potential.

If you would rather be feared, the consequences of such far outweigh any work product output. Leading by fear produces a team that works in a constant state of anxiety because of their pressure to perform.

Fear-based leadership can often have origins traced back to a leader’s own lack of self-confidence. If a leader has any insecurities, ruling by fear is a way to mask these limitations. In an environment where people are afraid to positively challenge ideas, employees will simply fall in line and never question authority. That works well for leaders who lack poise.

Seven Signs That Fear May Be Ruling an Organization

1. New Ideas Never Sprout Up  

When was the last time someone brought forth a new idea? How many potentially profitable ideas are out there that are never acted on? If your organization lacks freshness, your employees may be afraid to advocate for new and innovative practices. Fear breeds silence and silent engagement is never a helpful trait. Leading by fear stifles creativity. This leads to the status quo and revolutionary ideas are seldom born of the status quo. Stagnation is not a component of an advanced, vibrant culture who wants to grow business in a competitive market.

2. The Office is Eerily Silent When the Boss is Around

Who doesn’t want to be on their best behavior when the boss is around? Some change is normal, but a complete change is a sign they are afraid of you. How do people act when you walk into the room or office? Do their facial expressions change from smiling to serious? Do they stop talking and put their heads down? Do they look you in the eye? Or, do they communicate with you only by email and never by conversation? Silence is not always golden.

3. There is Always a Meeting Before the Real Meeting

If you must have a meeting before the “real” meeting because you are afraid of what your employees will say, then fear is overpowering free-flowing thoughts. If everything must be reviewed through a “chain of command” before a meeting with a top leader, you are trying to configure a narrative that you know management wants to hear instead of what they need to hear. The “pre-meeting” meetings leads to thought suppression, forcing people to refrain from expressing their opinions. Employees should never be condemned or ostracized for sharing their thoughts or perspectives.

4. Email is Always Used as a Cover

If your employees continually have paper trails to cover themselves, they are afraid of repercussions. If email has become a form of self-protection, it is because employees believe that the leaders or the organization will not have their back if something happens.

5. There is Too Much Consensus

Building a shared consensus is great, but hearing “yes” to everything isn’t. If you can’t have healthy debates, it is a sign that people are afraid to disagree with you. Earnest debates are good for sustained and long-term success. Leaders make the best decisions when they hear all sides of an argument.

6. Hiding Mistakes is a Standard Mode of Operation

Mistakes happen. If the environment is stressful, mistakes may increase. In a punishment prevalent culture, employees will go out of their way to hide their mistakes. When blunders are hidden, you are unable to deal with issues quickly leaving them to simmer, fester, and to explode later. When fear is minimized, issues are handled expediently. That makes it easier to get to the root cause quickly.

7. Leaders are Blindsided Frequently

If your team members are afraid to interact with you, you may be unapproachable. When you are viewed as such, you will miss out on important information that can help your business. If they are reluctant to interact with you when an issue arises, you will find that a small, correctable issue can soon spiral out of control which can ultimately impact customer or client satisfaction, resulting in costly waste.

Breaking the Habit of Fear

Managing by fear can be a hard habit to break, particularly if you are getting projects completed. However, managing by fear is not a good long-term business strategy. While fostering an environment of trust takes time it is worth the time commitment. Driving the fear out of the organization is vital to unleashing employees’ potential, confidence, and inciting groundbreaking ideas – all essential elements to a thriving business.

You can exhibit compassion and empathy as a gateway to building solid work relationships.  Kindness will not impede your ability to take control when you need to do so. Unfortunately, there is not a scientific formula that can make this happen instantaneously. You will have to be aware enough of the signs and then push yourself to develop these skills.

An effective leader can manage and decrease fear. You will eventually need to trust your employees to do the right thing. If you don’t, another company will.


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Jan Johnston Osburn is a Certified Career Coach and Organizational Consultant. Her organizational specialties are Talent Acquisition, Training, and Leadership Development. She holds a Master’s degree from the University of Buckingham, UK, and has certifications in Executive Coaching and Advanced Social Media. Her website is www.YourBestLifeTodayCoaching.Com .