Why Fear As A Tactic in Business Is Overrated

Fear photoHave you ever been “dressed down” by your supervisor in front of your peers? I have on more than one occasion in my business career. It’s a tactic of intimidation and a sure sign of a supervisor that considers fear to be an important ingredient in getting things done. After all, you can’t be soft and effectively lead, correct?

Don’t believe that for a minute.

There are many ingredients that allow leaders to get their team to accomplish – and even exceed – agreed goals. Honesty and trust are good starting points. But fear remains a very popular tactic, actually weapon is probably a better term given the carnage that is the likely long-run result. The damage, I believe, is that like many things in life, something given (or received) in excess often achieves the opposite of the desired result. Science tells us that a bit of fear can stimulate our brains and provide positive benefits. Too much fear, however, leads to stress that suppresses clear thinking and creativity. And that, in short, is why bosses who feel they must constantly invoke fear will do more harm than good in the long run.

Management via fear is one obvious and common case, but obviously fear enters into other phases of business as well.

We want our competitors to fear us, don’t we? Conversely, we should be in fear of our competitors, right? Doesn’t that set the table for organizational motivation and action? Not really. Study, analyze, know your competitors inside out, but fear doesn’t really have a place.

And if you are looking to provide an answer for your team to the all-important motivational question of “Why do I get up every morning and do my job?”, I can assure you fear doesn’t play well.

A little adrenalin certainly can be useful when a critical bit of competitive intelligence comes in. However, the sooner that passes the better. Early in my career, I had a supervisor summon me for a 1:1 meeting where I was informed of a major threatening competitive product launch. The coda of that session was essentially: Get on this or you’ll be out of a job.

There is no process that requires calm and clarity more than strategizing to counteract a competitive threat, especially when a significant strategic pivot is required. It’s a time to reassess, gather information, rally the team, keep an open mind, and sometimes think way out of the box. I might suggest those are preferred topics of dialogue as opposed to not so a not so subtle threat.

As to the other side of the competition equation, I frankly never cared if a competitor feared my company. I actually think this opposite is preferred. I would rather competition think of my organization as weak and unprepared. Such underestimation creates vulnerability.

The use of the fear factor in getting ahead (i.e. getting that next promotion) within an organization is another all too common occurrence. It can be a naïve and shortsighted substitute for competence and performance. It’s also often one of the hallmarks of an organization that is steeped in office politics and needs to evaluate its values and culture. Stated differently, the practitioner’s issue may well be the sign of a larger organizational issue.

If you are feeling a loss in with my minimizing the use of fear in the recipe of business leadership and success, here are just a handful of many potential substitute ingredients:


It may be telling that the word fear is so often used in the same sentence as ignorance.

Photo: “Shouting Man” by chrisroll