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