Using Fear to Manage Others

Originally published 7/22/10

I received an interesting email this week from a former colleague who asked me if I thought managers who ruled by fear, did so because they were fearful themselves. The implication being that we pull our style from our own dark corners.

Interesting question. I've certainly been fearful in the work environment myself (you can see earlier posts for more on that), I've worked for bosses who exploit fear, and I've occasionally used fear as a tool myself. The dynamics of all this are complicated, however.

To start with, most deeply seated fear -- the kind that borders on irrational -- is in us, not imposed on us (at least in the work environment, a kidnap victim's fear is undoubtedly imposed). If we aren't afraid of being embarrassed, of failing, or of being labeled, then it would be pretty hard for a manager or executive to make us afraid on that account.

Most of us, though, have some deeply held fears. If you're in management or a professional, and have been driving to achieve , the chances are good there is some deep seated fear in you. It can be a huge personal motivator.

Managers know about these fears (probably in most cases because they have them too, like my colleague said), and they sometimes exploit them. Some a little, and some a lot. No manager I ever recall meeting completely eschewed fear as a tool. The degree to which they do so depends on several factors -- their own personal style (some people are just natural terrors), their belief in the power of fear as a motivating tool, and the expectations of the organization, to name a few. There are undoubtedly other factors as well.

I don't think that most senior executives are Machiavellian by nature -- it just takes too much effort to operate that way (although I personally know of two exceptions to this generalization, for certain). Their use of fear, and mine too, was primarily instinctive and opportunistic. And in every organization I ever worked, there were structural expectations that management would use fear as well. For example, it wasn't uncommon to rely on the fear of public embarrassment to get people to work harder. Monthly and quarterly update meetings are structured specifically to do that. Another example would be the use of "stretch" goals, where management sets such impossibly high targets for people that they have little hope of actually achieving them, yet fear of a bad performance appraisal (formal or informal) is used to drive the employees to try just the same.

The unfortunately point is that fear is a powerful motivator, using it works, most people respond to it, and it is a cruel tool. And so it gets used a lot.

Kind of a perverse world we live in at times, isn't it?