Management by Fear

It happens more often than most managers think. After all, we are not talking about unskilled or uneducated people. Most of us intuitively know, or have learned through experience, that to make decision "based on our fears" leads to poor outcomes. So, it is rare that you will find any leader who acknowledges that at the present moment they are managing out of fear. If they realized it they would probably do something different. But, in truth, if you listen careful to leaders, it is often done anyway.  Often it inflicts some of the "best and brightest"--those who truly care about the affects their decisions will have on the the people in their organization. Often they are trapped by the fear or attempting to avoid the fear.

What do I mean by "trapped?"  I mean that these leaders begin to make decisions based on what they are afraid will happen if they make a different, or wrong, choice.  I have experienced it at all levels and across industries.  It happened in the case of one executive who wouldn't leave meetings when they talked about his position because "nothing good ever comes from it." It was there in the meeting with a group of senior managers who admitted that the new manufacturing emphasis on "getting out the most product" had, in fact, driven up the waste costs when minor problems were not fixed and the entire machine was scrapped . . . but they had not communicated or addressed the problem with the owners.  

It has been present in many senior leadership teams or individuals whose rational for not doing something different has been "it might make things worse." while admitting that things were already trending toward "worse" in most cases. While fear has it's place (After all it helps us run very fast if we encounter a threat) it can move quickly from being a useful "friend" . . . to being a powerful enemy. It may have started as a warning us about approaching danger.  But it may have become a road block, stopping us from removing the thorn that is the source of our pain or frustration.

Fear and Acting

I came home one night years ago and when I entered the house I heard what I can only describe as a "wailing."  I followed the sound to my 10 year old son's bedroom.  There sat my wife holding my son who had a toothpick protruding from his heel. My son had driven it deep enough that my wife could not extract it.  She told me that she had called her father and he was on his way over and there they sat waiting for help.

Help had arrived. I told my son that I would remove the toothpick. "No!," he pleaded. "I can just walk on my toes!" he argued.  "I don't mind it," he retorted to my firm insistence that it must be removed.  Fear.  Pure fear. But I, of course, persisted. Sadly, it took not only my strength but a pair of pliers to remedy the situation. But, as you might suspect, things improved greatly with the plank removed.

Moving toward Fear

We've all done it. Let our fears stop us. Taking away our best tools . . . reason, risk-taking, learning by doing, asking for feedback or advice. We've all kicked ourselves later for not facing it sooner. How can a leader protect themselves from managing by fear? Part of the answer is in having good "collegial checks" to your management decisions.  This can be a spouse, a board, a mentor or friend, and yes, it can be a "hired gun"--a consultant or coach-- whose primary concern is to help you keep on track. It's also helpful to plan for the time, and participate in events that encourage you, to do a little self-reflection about what is motivating your decisions.

What situations is your organization avoiding? What will happen if you continue to avoid dealing with them? Will you be "kicking yourself" for not acting in spite of the fear?

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