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Leader's Edge Office Tyranny

Fear management breeds self-preservation in your staff and assures you’ll end up as road kill

By  Julia Kramer

Much has been written on the controversial practice of management by fear. Proponents of MBF argue that a dose of dread keeps employees on their toes, on schedule and on alert. In essence, the MBF practitioner controls employees through threats, manipulation and coercion. Effective? Maybe in the short term. But in the long term it’s a complete disaster and reduces productivity, innovation and retention.

The poster child for MBF is Neal Patterson, co-founder and CEO of Cerner Corporation, who in 2001 sent a now infamous email accusing his entire management staff of general incompetence. “We are getting less than 40 hours of work from a large number of our ‘employees,’ ” Patterson wrote. “Hell will freeze over before this CEO implements another employee benefit in this culture…what you are doing as managers with this company makes me sick. I am giving you two weeks to fix this. My measurement will be the parking lot. It should be substantially full at 7:30 a.m. and 6:30 p.m. You have two weeks. Tick-tock.”

For those of you thinking, “You go, Neal!” you should know that within two days of the email hitting the Internet, Cerner stock dropped 25%. Subsequently, after public apologies and expressions of regret and remorse, a contrite Patterson led Cerner back to robust health. He is still at the helm today and many think that the lesson learned in 2001 made him a stronger leader.

It doesn’t take tyranny to create a culture of fear. Other management decisions and practices can have the same result. Layoffs are a good example, and the costs are both immediate and long-term. Immediately, surviving staff may be demoralized, angry and fearful. Firms may experience an increase in employee absenteeism, lethargy, defiance and disengagement. Down the road, this same staff, shaken to the core because the organization turned against its own rather than find other solutions to economic pressures, start looking for other jobs.

Other management practices that create fear for employees include giving incomplete or unclear instructions and then nailing the employee for not producing what management envisioned but never articulated; picking apart a finished product and highlighting only what’s wrong; and losing control of your own emotions so that employees never know if they’ll encounter Dr. Jekyll or Mr. Hyde. Or, my all-time favorite, demeaning an employee for doing something that the week before resulted in praise.

Jeffrey Pfeffer, the Thomas D. Dee II Professor of Organizational Behavior at the Graduate School of Business at Stanford University, is an author and expert on management and leadership. Pfeffer asserts that “a management style based on fear ultimately doesn’t work” and offers us three clear reasons why we should take the opposite approach.

Fear keeps people from telling the truth. If you are quick to punish those who make mistakes or express a different viewpoint or new creative idea, why would anyone step forward with important but possibly contentious information? If the best way to ensure that you are out of the loop and in the dark is to penalize your staff for telling the truth, don’t. Instead, encourage and recognize those who step up with information that’s hard to hear, control your emotional reactions to bad or distasteful news, and make sure you teach others to do the same.

Fear encourages people to focus on their self-interests. This is basic human nature. Say you’re driving along at 65 mph and a squirrel runs into your car’s path. If you swerve to the right, you’ll crash into the car next to you. If you swerve to the left, you’ll careen into a deep ravine. If you stay the course, you will run over the squirrel. Most of us would stay the course. Even if the animal was a small dog. Even if the animal was our best friend’s small dog. Self-preservation is a mighty strong force. Managers who underestimate it risk ending up as road kill.

Fear drives people out of an organization. We all have breathed a sigh of relief when a not-so-good employee resigns under duress, even if we feel bad that she had an abusive manager. But what we’re talking about here are the really good employees—those who get results, work smart and hard, enhance morale and resign because the work environment is toxic. No healthy, intelligent employee whose self-esteem is intact will long tolerate a fear-inducing workplace. It may take them a while to make a move, but make the move they will, thus, Pfeffer writes, “depriving the company of the talent required to prevail under competitive conditions”—not to mention depriving the company of a sound succession plan that ensures success in the future.

Fear is a motivator, no doubt about it, but fear is not a sound management style or appropriate motivational technique. Explore instead the many effective alternatives (to be discussed next month). They won’t cause your employees to withhold information, focus on themselves to the detriment of the organization, or prematurely walk out the door.

Kramer is The Council’s senior vice president, office of the president.

Julia.Kramer@LeadersEdgeMagazine.com


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