A good friend of mine recently told me a little bit about the business unit in which he works. Apparently they had recently hired a new manager to lead the organization on the business side. The new hire was young and had never led people before or worked in a business of any type. He mentioned how interesting it has been to watch them learn on the job and make some pretty stupid (obvious) rookie mistakes. In his view the biggest mistake they had yet made was to try the strategy of management by fear. He stressed that this person has some very fine qualities and overall has made the best of a very bad situation. He wasn’t telling me about it as a personal attack on the individual or the organization as he felt that given the circumstances any new manager in any business might try the same approach at some point.
Unfortunately, as expected it backfired dreadfully. My friend says the person has already begun to course correct at least somewhat and he does believe the situation can be salvaged. His story got me thinking about why exactly fear of punishment is such a bad approach to management and the reasons it is counterproductive to a business’s long and short term health. The following is an abbreviated summary of just a few of the reasons I came up with.
Management by fear leads to error/mistake cover ups
To have a successful and healthy business it is imperative that employees feel empowered to report when they are responsible for an error or other mistake that has happened. Reporting errors and mistakes is the only way to learn from them, correct them in a timely manner, and put in place systems to prevent them from happening again. It is obvious I think that hiding or errors can lead to disaster as they may be simply patched over/not fixed properly or worse yet not fixed at all. Certainly the idea of preventing the same mistake from happening again by learning from it is ruled out.
Management by fear leads to blame shifting
This and the above go hand in hand and if employees do not feel capable of reporting when they have made a mistake they will more likely try to shit the blame to someone else. This leads to all sorts of terrible consequences such as personal enmity, destruction of team cohesion/unity, and generates a general climate of distrust of others. Winning teams are built on a foundation of respect and trust and blame shifting destroys trust and actively erodes respect.
Management by fear leads to sandbagging
Why should an employee work as hard as they possibly can for a boss they fear may discipline them for the smallest of mistakes? Much better to set expectations at something less than 100% so they are certain to always meet or exceed their goals. There is a risk in stretching one’s abilities and risk taking is not something anyone will do willingly in an organization that is managed by fear. This leads to the next point….
Management by fear cripples innovation
Innovation requires risk taking. Risk taking requires that one be willing to fail. If failure is actively punished why would anyone want to take any risks at all? They would not and thus management by fear fosters an environment in which risk taking happens rarely or never, thus innovation rarely or never happens.
Management by fear leads to more worker absences
This one is patently obvious but if people are unhappy at work they are much more likely to be absent from it. Their is a direct relationship between job satisfaction and worker absences. As satisfaction goes up absences go down and vice versa.
Management by fear in any one part of a company can and almost certainly will, have negative consequences for all parts of the company
All of the above negative consequences of management by fear can metastasize like a cancer and move to other parts of the organization. If those other parts have strong management and happy people they may be able to fight off the infection and be minimally or completely unaffected, however if management is weak or worse yet also fostering a fearful environment those negative consequences will be amplified and spread even further.