Leadership by fear means you do not trust your employees

Tommy Weir says leaders must move from a "perform or else" style to start believing in your employees.

Have you ever caught yourself saying to someone, “You better do this, or else …?”

The other day, I found myself rehearsing in my head what I was going to say to one of our children to “motivate” them to perform, well actually to be home on time.

I was thinking to myself, “Be home by 11pm or else.” Then another thought popped into my mind, “Wait a minute, what am I doing, parenting by fear of punishment?” This made me wonder, “How often do leaders employ the perform or else management style?”

Stretching for a catalyst to cause the result we are looking for, it is far too easy to employ the “perform or else” style. But when this style is employed it is detrimental to healthy performance and in reality should be the bottom rung of motivation.

When you say “do this or you will be punished” you are leading by fear. Maybe not the fear of you, but definitely fear of punishment.

This says more about what you think about your employees than you should be revealing. When you revert to the “perform or else” style you are clearly communicating that you do not believe they will do what is asked. Why else would you add in the punishment, the fear?

Using this style may say even more about who you are as a leader. You may be putting on a poster for all to see that you are a Theory X leader, meaning you believe that employees are inherently lazy and will avoid work when they can. Because this type of leader assumes that employees inherently dislike work, they rely heavily on threats to gain their compliance.

These are harsh words to hear, but relying on threats and fear-based leadership reveals you don’t believe in your team. And it shouts loudly in the corridors.

Contrast Theory X with Theory Y, which, as you can guess, is based on the premise that employees are self-motivated, and learn to seek out and accept responsibility for their actions. If you are a Theory Y leader, why would you need to rely on threats? You wouldn’t; in turn, your style reveals to your employees you believe in them.

In the 1960s, Douglas McGregor, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor developed this motivational theory, which is known as Theory X and Y.

It describes two contrasting models of workforce motivation and the perceptions managers hold about their employees. Whichever attitude you hold shows up in how you lead.

If we refer to my thought, “Be home by 11pm or else,” it embarrassingly reveals what I was thinking – the curfew would not be adhered to.

Instead of leading from the negative and relying on threats, you should set the target without the added threat. Performance leadership needs a culture where employees strive to achieve the target because that is what is expected, not because if they don’t do it, they will be in trouble.

Additionally, we should not instantly reward an employee for merely achieving the desired outcome.

Sticking with the “Be home by 11pm or else” even if the “or else” was a reward instead of punishment, it is still saying the same thing – I don’t believe you will do this, so I am going to incentivise you. This is still Theory X thinking but being masked in rewards instead of punishment.

The reward should be reserved for achieving a stretch target, exceeding expectations.

If you have been a “perform or else” leader, you will have to build a culture that believes others will achieve because they are supposed to, not in fear of punishment or desirous for a reward.

Getting rid of fear-based leadership starts with believing that your employees want to perform.

Tommy Weir is a leadership adviser, the author of 10 Tips for Leading in the Middle East and the founder of the Emerging Markets Leadership Center

Published: November 10, 2013 04:00 AM


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