The Mentoring Parent – Leading by Fear

April 5, 2016

Fear as a tool of the manager’s trade

Do you ever use fear to control or influence others? When there’s an imbalance of power it’s a strong temptation as a way to get what we want; it’s a darker side of the human psyche. If we are in a position of power over others, we use it because we can, and over time, we may not even realise we’re using it.

I’ll confess that I’ve used fear to influence others – my children. I tell myself I did it when it really mattered that they understood a situation, and that it was for their ultimate benefit; ‘Stop that – or else…!’ As I wince at their wide-eyed response, I tell myself I’m being cruel to be kind.

The truth is, I can’t convince myself. I could have used a more compassionate, patient (and in the long-term, more effective) approach, and chose not to – the imbalance of power between me and my children, gives me the option.

In work, the same imbalance of power allows similar, and worse behaviours. As a manager or boss, you have the whip-hand. This unconscious and subtle threat to ‘deliver – or else’ becomes a thinly-disguised part of the culture. It’s also pervasive; managers feel fear as a result of the coercive power from above and pass it on – like an unseen virus.

In my work, coaching and mentoring managers and leaders, I notice a persistent, low-level anxiety that drives their motivation and behaviour The presence of this subtle fear surrounds our conversations like fine mist; and I know that their teams will experience their tension too.

This presence of fear, conscious or unconscious, is now cultural and starts with an individual’s response to the intensity of the pressure they feel to perform – ‘I can’t afford to fail, and I need to make sure my people are not the cause of my failure’. It’s a vicious circle.

Are you a manager or leader of others? Please STOP. REFLECT. Ask yourself:

-       How much pressure do you feel to succeed and not fail?

-       How does that pressure affect the way you feel and behave at work?

-       What experience are you creating for others in their workplace?  What would they say about that?

It’s time that we reflected on our own anxiety and fear, and worked with that more openly; finding ways to relax and calm ourselves; allowing more resourceful and effective behaviour with our colleagues and subordinates. Next time you’re feeling tense around someone, just pause for a moment and ask yourself – is my tension driven by fear?

As please remember, as with children, you’re learning how to be and what works for you just as much as they are. It’s okay to make mistakes, so long as you work to put them right and work to do better going forward.

Until next time, Work hard. Be kind. And please – tidy your room? Michael Fryer


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