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How to Avoid the Top Profit Killer: Employee Fear



How to Avoid the Top Profit Killer: Employee Fear

“I’m too busy to coddle people.”

“I’m paid to get results. Why do I have to be nice?”

“Encouragement is a waste of time.”

Do any of these sound familiar?

Leaders who fill employees with fear—in order to motivate them—often do so for reasons of efficiency. It simply takes less thought, time, and technique to bark orders than it does to motivate workers according to their passions, interests, and capabilities, right? Wrong.

I’ve seen the wreckage caused by fear-based leaders, and a stark truth has emerged: fear is terrible for business. Workers have a way of acting in their own worst interests when leaders overload them with fear. Like flailing about at the sight of a bee, thinking that the best way to keep from getting stung is to wave hysterically, fearful workers act in ways that are dramatic and disproportionate to their worries and anxieties.

Fear makes workers freeze up, restricting the flow of feedback that keeps managers from making bonehead, uninformed decisions. Fear heightens workers’ suspicions of one another, undermining the trust that interpersonal relationships need to flourish. Fear causes workers to become preoccupied with safety, strangling their willingness to extend their skill sets and take risks. Fear lowers morale, erodes trust, damages relationships, and builds resentment. Ultimately, fear lowers confidence and standards—and profits.

An alternative to fear-based management

As fear-stoking managers argue, providing encouragement to workers takes time. But it’s an investment of time, not a waste of it. How do you go about it?

Jump first.

Good leaders are good role models. Before helping workers to be more courageous, you need to be more courageous yourself. Doing so allows you to gain firsthand experience with the challenges you’re asking workers to face and is the best way to build credibility with your direct reports.

Create safety nets.

For some workers, safety comes in the form of financial stability. For others, it’s about preserving their reputation. Still, others find safety in belonging to tightly-knit social groups. Giving people permission to be courageous—and to fail—creates a safety net that ticks many of these fears off the list. By valuing your employees’ mistakes and sticking up for workers, you’ll provide a safety net of “air cover.”

Put fear to work.

Fear in the workplace is inevitable. Make it useful by putting it to work for you. Fear’s energy can be converted to fuel that helps people do courageous things. When workers harness nervous energy and bravely take the stage in front of a group, or when they provide the kind of feedback most people don’t have the guts to say, tell them, “Thanks for being so courageous.”

Modulate comfort.

Too much comfort can be a dangerous thing. So while you’re encouraging workers, provide comfortable workers with challenges that make them uncomfortable and keep them motivated. When workers become too uncomfortable, let them settle in long enough to gain confidence with their newfound skills.

It’s easier to break from fear’s grip when you know that other people are doing courageous things, too. Like ever-expanding concentric circles, every act of workplace courage has the potential to transform your business in unexpected ways. All it takes is someone to start the first ripple. Will it be you?

Bill Treasurer is a workplace expert, courage pioneer, and author of Courage Goes to Work: How to Build Backbones, Boost Performance, and Get Results. Founder of Giant Leap Consulting, a consulting and training company specializing in courage-building, he advises organizations—including NASA, eBay, Lenovo, Saks Fifth Avenue, Spanx, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, and the Pittsburgh Pirates—on teaching workers the kind of courage that strengthens businesses and careers. Learn more at