The views and opinions expressed are mine personally and are not necessarily representative of current or former employers.
Leading with Fear – Not!
Researches say we are born with two fears — fear of falling and fear of loud noises. Every other fear is learned. Fear is developed and reinforced because of the consequences and punishments we experience.
Ironically, 85 percent of our fears are never realized. In fact, many are irrational, often based on emotion, not data. Real or imagined, the consequences of fear, especially in the workplace, are devastating.
Insecure leaders rule with fear. Even when effective, the use of fear to motivate employees is morally corrupt. Fear has no place at work. Confident leaders can achieve better results creating an engaged culture without fear. Who wants to work for a leader whose primary tactic is fear to motivate? Nobody.
Clearly, people still work for fear mongers. Leaders throughout history have leveraged fear. Despite the contemporary focus on management theory and professional development, leadership by fear continues.
Employees feel they may not have a choice but to capitulate to the fear mongers. Others have a victim mentality, feel incapable of escape, and assign the experience to fate. At the edge are those who believe they may deserve the punishment.
Naïve workers who know no difference may believe all leaders rule by fear. A smaller percentage know it is wrong, actively resist, and look for the first opportunity to escape. This reinforces the trend where the best employees tend to leave unhealthy environments while peers begrudgingly accept abuse and stay.
Leadership by fear is a management form of bullying. We spend too much time at work to be miserable and treated disrespectfully. There is a better way, and if you find yourself working for an abusive leader, you must stand up for yourself or leave. Pacifism only reinforces the behavior and nothing changes for you, nor for those who follow. Stay and fight if you have the skills, but move on if you have no support. Nobody deserves to be bullied.
I once observed an iron-fisted peer who ruled by fear. Insecure and simply unpleasant, he would routinely yell, curse, belittle, and threaten his team. I watched otherwise aspiring leaders shake to their core. His team trembled working for him. The more they passively accepted his leadership by fear, the deeper it became ingrained.
His power over them grew. His bullying became the new norm and eventually worked its way down to the depths of his division. Weak subordinates accepted and adopted this style and soon the stain and stench of fear permeated. Engagement plummeted as the culture shifted into the abyss. Next, performance fell. Fear, left unchecked, grows and takes no prisoners.
I felt sad. Heartbroken for the people who came to serve each day wanting to do good work, but were bullied. Torn to see aspiring leaders snuffed too early in their careers. Disappointed for customers who suffered deteriorating service. It became a slow death spiral. Lead with fear, and when performance suffers, add more fear.
By the time our parent organization took action, the damage was profound. The division was rebuilt over time, but the scars and pain from fear never disappear. Healing takes time and love.
Love is the antidote to fear. How can you change a fear-emboldened leader or a fear-based culture? Love does not imply that you overlook poor performers and sing Kumbaya all day holding hands sitting in a circle. No, love is a verb and is action-oriented. Love is discipline. Love is tough. While love is kind and respectful, it is never a crutch or excuse. Love does not accept mediocrity. Love propels performance. Love inspires.
I try to incorporate love into who I am as a person and as a leader. I remain a work in process, but it is easier to love then to hate. Love helps me develop compassion for those dealing with adversity. It increases my empathy towards others, which is why I’ve learned to listen to the heart as much as to words.
I am less judgmental and more tolerant. I am increasingly open to new ideas, diversity of styles and beliefs. I have embraced others very different from me and am better for it. Embracing love as a leader quickened my healing of wounds from past hurts. My heart aches for those who have not yet found love. Life is short; there is not time for fear to rule us.
It was awkward the first time I introduced love in the workplace. I was a young officer commanding my first platoon. My platoon sergeant was everything you would think of in a professional warrior. Battle-hardened, he chewed up Second Lieutenants like me for breakfast. But our platoon had challenges and we were not getting better by simply amping the fear in our squad leaders and soldiers.
First I and then SSG Hammer stopped yelling and otherwise intimidating our soldiers. While expectations and discipline never waivered, we demonstrated care and compassion to each of them. Word spread that upon an unexpected deployment, I mowed his young family’s lawn each week in his absence. It was small, but embodied the change in culture we sought. We changed, the platoon was transformed, and arguably it became one of the best engineering units in our battalion. Awkward at first, but love worked.
Love transformed me, my teams, my divisions, and my organizations. Love reached our customers and improved service. It created better opportunities for individuals to become whom they were created to be. It helped foster a culture of civility, setting a firm foundation for individual, team, and organizational success that exceeded expectations.
I learned of love from many sources and I continue to dig deep to find more. My mom loved me and believed in me before I believed in myself. My dad, who bared his soul in a TED Talk about his concentration camp escape while his family was left behind…and how he chose love over fear and till this day he has not once showed anger towards those responsible. Those family and friends who love me despite my failures. My life mentor led with love in a fear-based society and changed the world. Love wins.
Love chases away fear. The two can’t coexist. Where there is love, there is freedom. Where there is freedom, we are inspired to do our best. Lead with love and you’ll witness a transformation that may seem small on some level, but will be giant for those you serve.