The wages of fear

In the circles of power, fear is often admired as a potent motivator. In his classic discourse on power politics, The Prince, Niccolo Machiavelli offered the following thoughts on the question of whether it is better for a leader to be feared or loved:

“If we must choose between them, it is far safer to be feared than loved. For of men it may generally be affirmed, that they are thankless, fickle, false, studious to avoid danger, greedy of gain, devoted to you while you are able to confer benefits upon them, and ready…while danger is distant, to shed their blood, and sacrifice their property, their lives, and their children for you; but in the hour of need they turn against you.”

So naturally, he would have considered occasional, small-scale cruelty justifiable and wise when it inspired fear and enabled a prince “to keep his subjects united and obedient.”

Ethical issues aside, this seems to work reasonably well, at least for a while, if your goal is to control the behaviour of a population, quell social unrest or suppress dissent. But if your goal is to lead a group of knowledge workers to peak productivity, this may not be a recipe for success.

As a consultant and speaker, I have the privilege of peeking into many companies, associations and IT departments. Within each, one can discern subtle attitudes, beliefs and emotions regarding their leaders.

In organizations where the leadership either deliberately or inadvertently cultivates fear, I’ve observed some interesting patterns. Few of them are particularly helpful for the organization or its leaders.

Creative energy is misdirected. There seem to be limits on the creative energy of any group. Only so many hours a day are really productive for generating the best answers to the important questions at hand. When a group comes to fear its leadership, a great deal of that creative energy is siphoned off into questions of how to mollify the manager rather than how to support the organization with technology.

The staffers focus their attention on what they feel are basic issues of personal security rather than on organizational accomplishment. If an employee is worried that you might publicly humiliate her because she forgot to use the official corporate PowerPoint slide template, then she’s diverted some of that vital energy away from the valuable content.

Offhand remarks are transformed into rigid policies. One way for staffers to avoid potential confrontations is to try to get decisions made in informal chats.

Imagine that you are the scary boss. You’re walking through the hall, and a subordinate tells you, “We’re going to send you a status report on Friday.” And you say, “Sounds great; the morning is best,” because you’ll be leaving early to visit your grandmother in Schenectady.

Next thing you know, every project manager in the organization is grumbling, angry and upset, because they’ve all heard that there is a new policy that EVERY PROJECT MUST HAVE A STATUS REPORT DELIVERED TO THE BOSS BY NOON EVERY FRIDAY…OR ELSE. There are whispers in the hall, “How come we can’t turn them in Monday? Why can’t we use the weekend?”

The pressure builds until someone eventually breaks and blurts out his frustration and incredulity at a public meeting, and you’re left slack-jawed wondering how this all started.

No one wants to talk to the scary boss. You’ve announced an open-door policy. All staffers have an open invitation to come to your office to discuss anything troubling them. Yet, on those rare occasions when you’re not in a meeting, you could hear crickets chirping to the gentle whine of your hard drive. No one wants to talk to you.

Before long, you don’t really know what’s going on. The staff has spent its creative energy constructing a rosy picture of reality, presented in the most formal settings, designed to avoid your wrath.

And, sadly, you’re probably smart enough to know that you’re being snowed, but you don’t know quite how to break through to these people. Eventually, your frustration comes out in a burst of anger — and the cycle begins again.

These are among the wages of fear. On the good side, the staffers have been unified. On the bad side, they are probably unified against you.

Paul Glen is an IT management consultant in Los Angeles and the author of the award-winning book Leading Geeks: How to Manage and Lead the People Who Deliver Technology (Jossey-Bass Pfeiffer, 2003; He can be reached at [email protected].

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