In the early 16th century, Niccolo Machiavelli famously wrote, “It is better to be feared than loved if you cannot be both.” If we look at modern-day leaders, this seems to corroborate Machiavelli’s observation. Fear can be an effective mobilization tool in the short-term. But research suggests that leading with fear is, at best, a shortsighted business strategy.
Here are the three reasons why leading with fear will fail to bring out the best your team has to offer.
1. Fear stifles employee initiative and creativity
Striking fear into the hearts of your employees taps into some of their oldest survival mechanisms. As researchers from Penn State, Harvard, and Cornell Universities wrote in a 2009 article published in Research in Organizational Behavior, humans’ fear of challenging authority figures stems from our evolutionary history. Obeying fearsome leaders helped early humans to survive, and an intimidating boss activates the same instincts in 21st-century workers.
When employees face fear, they typically clam up. They hold back rather than take the risk of voicing a contrary opinion or proposing a novel approach. A study conducted by an international team of researchers and published in the Journal of Business Research in 2018 found that by encouraging defensive silence, fearsome leaders end up stifling their employees’ creativity and initiative.
Workers need a sense of safety to be creative. As a leader, you can cultivate this kind of culture by frequently interacting with your employees and encouraging diverse opinions. That means receiving your staff’s input with respect and sending the message that mistakes are a valuable part of the learning process.
2. Fear yields employee obedience without buy-in
Fear triggers people’s primitive self-preservation mechanisms to kick in. As a result, they may comply with what you ask them to do, but that doesn’t mean they buy what their leader is selling. They may go through the motions without believing in the company’s mission or embracing the boss’s vision. That kind of halfhearted compliance never ends well. Employees will either give up and slack off, or leave altogether.
To achieve consistent effort over the long haul, you need employees to buy in—to believe in the mission and be motivated to work toward it. One reason Steve Jobs (who by many accounts was an autocratic leader) achieved such spectacular success was his ability to fire up his employees with his vision for Apple’s future.
In 2011, Jai-Yeol Son from the Yonsei University School of Business in South Korea surveyed 602 U.S. employees. He found that workers are much more likely to follow company security policies if they are internally motivated to do so rather than if they are driven by sanctions. Belief is a much better motivator than fear.
3. Fear disrupts employees’ ability to think rationally
Psychologists find that anxiety is the enemy of logic. In one experiment, a group of German researchers led by Nadine Jung gave volunteers a bogus intelligence test and provided varying feedback on their performance. They then asked the volunteers to solve logic problems. The results, published in Frontiers in Psychology in 2014, showed that participants who had received discouraging feedback on the bogus test went on to perform worse on logical tasks than those who had received encouraging or even neutral feedback. In a follow-up experiment, participants with spider phobia scored especially poorly on logic questions that brought their fear into focus by mentioning spiders.
Employees who are anxious or fearful can’t devote their best mental resources to thinking logically or solving problems. To help your staff concentrate on finding rational solutions, strive to create a relatively calm and psychologically safe environment. If you appear approachable and engage people warmly and respectfully, they can stop worrying and focus on the tasks at hand.
At first glance, fear can seem like an effective way to get your employees to fall in line, but in the long run, fear erodes their creativity, disrupts their ability to think clearly, and only achieves halfhearted compliance. On the other hand, positive leadership creates a culture of psychological safety where employees are encouraged to express opinions or think outside the box. A leader who can inspire her staff with her vision can get their full commitment without resorting to scare tactics.
That same Machiavelli who advocated leading with fear also wrote, “The best fortress which a prince can possess is the affection of his people.” Five hundred years later, respect for a leader and his vision still trump fear every time.
Harrison Monarth is the CEO and Founder of Gurumaker and author of Executive Presence: The Art of Commanding Respect Like a CEO.