leading by fear?

January 20, 2020

Those occupying seats of power—many a time unknowingly—trigger a sense of fear in their organizations. This makes them unapproachable and kills the synergy that smooth conversations can bring. Leaders may be tempted to believe that the problem lies elsewhere, but the solution is in looking within and bringing about positive change.

Power silences people—and the more power you have the less likely it is that people are going to speak the truth to you, whatever you may think. Our research, published in our book Speak Up: say what needs to be said and hear what needs to be heard, points to most managers living in a fool’s paradise, believing that they are being told much more than they really are by the people who report to them. Meanwhile, right now, at least 8 percent of employees know something that will actively damage their company—and have done nothing about it.

To understand what is going on here, and so be in a position to do something about it, you need to pay attention to the following:

how people actually experience your power (and not how you wish they would)

The fundamental importance of power, status and hierarchy in the modern workplace has been systematically underplayed for over forty years. The term ‘the flat organization’ appeared in the 1970s and is now taken for granted—in a recent article for a leading US publication we had to argue hard for the editor not to include a statement in our piece saying that the world is getting flatter. For those at the top of the tree, the world always tends to look more even. When you are at the bottom or in the middle you see the world very differently.

John Higgins is an independent researcher, coach, consultant, and author. He has published widely with the Ashridge Executive Masters and Doctorate in Organizational Change. He is the co-author of The Change Doctors: Re-Imagining Organizational Practice and Speak Up: Say what needs to be said and hear what needs to be heard.

Meanwhile our work confirms that people are very aware of how they stand relative to others—if you are on the factory floor, for instance, operating a dial gives you a higher standing than your colleagues who only have the discretion to push a button on or off. Across the world unearned social standing accrues to people on the basis of their height, ethnicity, gender, social background, and accent—even if the most senior people told us that they are never (or hardly ever) influenced by any such things.

As a manager or team leader you might want to see yourself as approachable and want to ignore how power gets created in your team and believe that you are all equal. All that does is create a world of ‘fake believe’, where truth does not get spoken to power. The fantasy of the flat organization explains why people spend so much time and energy pretending to do one thing, while thinking and doing another, pretending not to be scared of those around them.

  • the basics of why people don’t speak up

All of us are social animals and will not do things that threaten our belonging to a group or our standing in it. Our research identified two stand-out reasons why people keep quiet when, from a rational business perspective, you would expect them to speak up.

Firstly, people do not want their colleagues or managers to think less of them—nobody wants to be thought of as a fool. The more junior people are the more stressed they can become when put on the spot, or invited to speak, by their boss—and in those cases, silence or saying what is expected of them is the safest route to follow.

Secondly, people do not want to embarrass or shame their colleagues or their manager. The need to belong to a group is hard-wired into our mammalian self and doing or saying something that upsets others (especially powerful others) is a scary route to follow. Expecting people to risk their group identity through upsetting others, especially when they are a powerful part of the team identity, is naive.

Much of the mainstream managerial work advocates the need for bravery and individual heroism in speaking up. It appeals to people to do the right thing—while ignoring the social and psychological realities of what it is to belong to a group (and what it feels like to risk banishment).

  • how open you really are to hearing something new or challenging

Early on in our work it became clear that people are much more interested in their own opinion than in the opinion of others. In some teams this was by a factor of three or four. In many of the executive teams we have sat alongside we have been struck by how much more energy goes into explaining away difficult data, from things such as employee survey results, compared to wanting to get under the skin of what people are saying. We repeatedly witness senior teams keeping messy customers at arms-length, preferring instead the company-approved version of the customer experience.

Megan Reitz is Professor of Leadership and Dialogue at Ashridge Executive Education at Hult International Business School. She is the co-author of Speak Up: Say what needs to be said and hear what needs to be heard.

This is before you begin to consider that using surveys, designed and approved by the management hierarchy, are often experienced as exercises in keeping a lid on things rather than a genuine inquiry into hearing what matters to others in their own words. In one police force we are working with what has become clear is that people do not speak up because they do not see any point in it—nothing ever happens.

Managers also like data to be presented in a particular way; we have become obsessed with measurement and allowed ourselves to create a culture where we live with, as our colleague Alison Reynolds calls it, the ‘tyranny of the tangible’. We want people, as one executive told us, ‘to be bright, to be brief, and to be gone’.  We cut ourselves off from people who have different ways of sharing experiences, who know that their way of presenting things will not be up to scratch.

So they avoid the disapproval that will come their way, directly or from a raised eyebrow or disappointed sigh.

What can you do?

The temptation is for senior management and team leaders to see the problem as lying with others, especially junior others. If only ‘they’ would speak up, if only they had the courage to say what needs to be said, then all would be well. But the problem, and the experience of fear, lies in the relationship that exists across the hierarchy and how people bring their prior experience of hierarchical authority and power into the workplace. In order to do something about being experienced as scary you need to do the following:

  • start by being honest about what gives people in your team power and status—know what labels and titles convey power—or take it away. Then identify how you can use the power others see in you to make it safer for others to speak up. Lend them your power and your ears so that they are heard within the hierarchy of the team.
  • look in the mirror and be honest about how interested you really are in the opinion of others. Are you okay with listening to the opinion of the usual suspects, or do you want (and need) to reach out to someone new? You will do more damage by pretending to listen than by explicitly silencing people.
  • make conscious choices about how you use your time (busyness is always cited as a reason for not listening to others, when it is actually a public sign of your priorities). You become less scary by giving people the opportunity to have small and ordinary conversations with you. Then they get to know how to raise the trickier issues (fear is often a function of only knowing someone as a title or role, rather than a human being).

Mainstream managerial work advocates the need for bravery and individual heroism in speaking up. It appeals to people to do the right thing—while ignoring the social and psychological realities of what it is to belong to a group.

Everyone in your team and the wider organization knows things that are important. It might be a good idea or bad thing going unreported. Because the world of work is not flat, because hierarchy and status are real, and because people need to feel psychologically safe to speak up, you, as a manager, need to work with the reality of the fear that comes with speaking up to you (and not just your own fears of speaking to those above you).

You are scarier than you think—and simply telling people not to be scared does not work.