Fear is a powerful emotion that can motivate us to act or paralyze us from taking action. In the workplace, some leaders may use fear as a tool to influence their employees’ attitudes, values, or behaviors. However, this approach can have negative consequences for both the leaders and their teams. In this article, we will explore how fear-based leadership can destroy employee morale and performance, and what leaders can do instead to create a culture of psychological safety and empowerment.
I have learned of some instances where, upon receiving a resignation letter from an employee in my previous organization, the manager tried to dissuade them from leaving by saying “Don’t resign or else you will regret it” and citing examples of former employees who faced difficulties in their new jobs. I find this to be a very unprofessional and unethical tactic by the manager. A true leader would be supportive of their team member’s career aspirations and wish them well for their future endeavors. They would also recognize that the employee might have the potential to start their own successful business someday or be a successful leader.
What is fear-based leadership?
Fear-based leadership is a style of management that relies on threats, punishments, intimidation, or coercion to achieve desired outcomes. Fear-based leaders may use various tactics to instill fear in their employees, such as:
- Setting unrealistic expectations and deadlines
- Micromanaging and controlling every aspect of work
- Criticizing and blaming employees for mistakes
- Withholding praise and recognition
- Creating a competitive and hostile work environment
- Ignoring or dismissing employees’ opinions and feedback
- Threatening employees with job loss, demotion, or pay cuts
Fear-based leaders may believe that fear is an effective motivator that can drive performance and productivity. They may also think that fear can help them maintain authority and control over their teams. However, research shows that fear-based leadership has many negative effects on both individuals and organizations.
The effects of fear-based leadership
Fear-based leadership can have detrimental impacts on employee morale and performance in various ways:
- It demoralizes people: Fear-based leadership creates a power imbalance that erodes trust,
respect, and dignity among employees. Employees may feel insecure, anxious, depressed,
or hopeless about their work situation. They may also lose their sense of purpose and meaning in their work.
- It creates a breeding ground for resentment: Some people may react with anger, frustration, or defiance to fear-based leadership. They may resent their leader for treating them unfairly or disrespectfully. They may also harbor negative feelings toward their colleagues who comply with or support the leader’s actions.
- It impedes communication: Fear-based leadership discourages open and honest communication among employees.
Employees may be afraid to speak up or share their ideas for fear of being ridiculed or punished by their leader. They may also avoid giving feedback or asking for help from their peers for fear of being seen as weak or incompetent. This leads to poor collaboration and information sharing within teams.
- It inhibits innovation: Fear-based leadership stifles creativity and learning among employees. Employees may be reluctant to try new things or experiment with different solutions for fear of making mistakes or failing. They may also resist change or feedback for fear of losing their status quo or comfort zone. This hinders innovation and improvement within organizations.
- It reduces engagement: Fear-based leadership lowers employee engagement levels. Employees may feel detached from their work goals and outcomes. They may also feel less motivated to perform well or go beyond expectations. They may only do the minimum required work to avoid negative consequences from their leader. This affects productivity and quality within organizations.
What leaders can do instead
Instead of using fear as a motivational tool for employees, leaders should create a culture of psychological safety
and empowerment within organizations. Psychological safety is “a shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking”.
It means that employees feel comfortable expressing themselves without fearing negative repercussions from others.
Empowerment is “the process of enhancing feelings of self-efficacy among organizational members through identification with organizational goals”. It means that employees feel confident in their abilities and have autonomy over their work decisions.
Leaders who foster psychological safety and empowerment among employees can benefit from:
- Higher trust: Employees trust their leaders who treat them with respect, care, and fairness.
They also trust each other who support them, listen to them, and collaborate with them. Trust enhances teamwork,
cooperation, and loyalty within organizations.
- Higher morale: Employees feel valued, appreciated, and recognized by their leaders who praise them, reward them,