Are You Leading With Fear — Or Inspiration?

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As any student of Machiavelli knows, the discussion of leading with fear or love dates back centuries. Numerous studies, articles, thought leaders, and world events have demonstrated the importance of leading with inspiration and stewardship over fear, control, and autocracy. Organizations with inspirational leaders and cultures see greater gains around innovation and productivity as well as lower employee turnover. So, why are many organizations still grappling with the signs and consequences of fear?

Certainly, the inability to predict and control the world and economic events is one factor. Even the most inspirational and effective leaders could not have predicted the timing and impact of the COVID-19 pandemic several years in advance. Another reason a company may struggle with fear relates back to a rigid focus on the bottom line and ensuring high performance, sometimes at the expense of its people and its culture. Many organizations say their people are their greatest asset, but how do they demonstrate that value through their leadership, ways of working, and feedback mechanisms?

A Culture of Fear

In some cases, the source of fear is clear, like a toxic leader, but the cause of fear isn’t always so obvious. Sometimes senior leadership’s priorities and leadership team culture may unintentionally sow the seeds of uncertainty and promote silence. Summit recently conducted an Organization Assessment with a consumer goods client to understand the company’s current strengths and opportunities for improvement to enhance growth. While the company had a good reputation in its market, growth had stagnated and there were concerns about achieving its Value Creation Plan. Through a series of leader interviews, the Summit team learned about conflict and division amongst the leadership team, lack of empowerment and decision-making beyond the executive level, unclear ownership of innovation, and an absence of structured talent practices, like performance management. Further, in meetings, we observed that leaders were quiet, rarely speaking up or engaging in productive conflict. These findings were paired with our Organization Growth Diagnostic© survey, revealing only 27% of employees perceived the company as effectively enabling innovation, 32% believed leaders model accountability, and 26% rated the senior leadership team as highly functioning.

The CEO was surprised as we described themes around a culture of uncertainty, lack of empowerment, and the fear to speak up. His efforts had been focused on driving the bottom line and despite encouraging his team to speak their minds directly, they did not have the established behaviors and level of trust required to do so. Further, the leadership team culture had a cascading effect on both employees and the bottom line. He then questioned, how do I drive results without people fearing the consequences of underperforming or making a mistake? Summit’s answer: Inspiration.

Indicators of a Culture of Fear

While many leaders today might think it’s intuitive not to lead through fear, it can rear its ugly head in surprising ways. There are many indicators of a culture of fear or uncertainty to watch out for, and while other factors may be at play, seeing several of the following symptoms should encourage further investigation:

  • Meetings where senior leaders stay quiet rather than engage in open disagreement or conflict
  • Sidebars or meetings after the meeting occur, where people’s true perspectives are voiced
  • Decisions are largely made and owned by a single person
  • Leaders are reluctant to take ownership and accountability
  • Increasing attrition either in pockets or enterprise-wide
  • Quiet quitting is on the rise and a large number of people are leaving without warning
  • Limited participation in employee surveys
  • Employees know the negative consequences of underperformance but rewards and recognition are rarely expected or given
  • Employee morale is generally low; uncertainty and anxiety permeate the day-to-day
  • Critical feedback is only shared in anonymous or confidential settings

So, your organization is displaying several of these signs? Here are a few things you can do about it:

Ask for more information. Consider using a third party to investigate these issues through interviews, focus groups, and/or surveys. At Summit, we often find that employees at all levels can be incredibly candid and insightful when given a safe space and opportunity to voice their opinions. Particularly when there is concern about a fear-based culture, employees may need to meet with someone external and unbiased to share their perspectives.

Trust and transparency start at the top. Evaluate these factors at the senior leadership level. Start an open and honest dialogue around how the team works together and identify collective areas for improvement. If you need support, pull in a trusted internal partner (e.g., Human Resources) or hire an external expert to facilitate. You may also consider conducting 360-assessments for your top several layers of leadership as a confidential opportunity for open feedback, guided development, and understanding enterprise leadership styles or development needs.

Overcommunicate. Often, fear stems simply from not knowing what to expect next. Uncertainty about the company’s future direction, job stability, potential change, and so on can drain employees and influence culture over time. Enterprise and cross-functional communication can help counterbalance uncertainty. Remember, there is no such thing as over-communicating.

Infuse your culture with accountability. When employees know what is expected of them, as well as the potential outcomes for both success (e.g., rewards and recognition) and failure (e.g., redirecting efforts, performance improvement plans) their uncertainty decreases. All companies should have a process for clearly defining expectations and consequences for employee performance across the organization.

In summary, keep an eye out for signs of fear and uncertainty in your organization. If the evidence is there, then take action to understand the root causes and remedy the situation. Leading with inspiration over fear seems intuitive but that doesn’t mean it’s easy.