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3 ways managers can unlearn fear-based leadership

When leaders drop fear-based practices, they reinforce the emotional connection employees have with their workplace, which improves their creativity and job performance.  

3 ways managers can unlearn fear-based leadership
[Photo: Robson Teixeira / EyeEm/Getty Images]

Many leaders in conventional corporate environments struggle to be their most authentic selves in a competitive workplace that magnifies the pressure to perform and produce results. No wonder they often adopt fear-based tactics to drive employees to accomplish tasks to meet the organization’s goals.  

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But this fear-based approach ultimately acts as a wedge between employees and their superiors and erodes job satisfaction. A McKinsey survey found that 86% of employees consider their relationships with management when determining satisfaction with their job. Of those, 45% of respondents who reported having “very bad” relationships with management were fairly or completely dissatisfied with their jobs.  

Leaders who embrace servant leadership and approach everyone in the organization with compassion can act as critical change agents. When leaders drop fear-based practices and become more authentic, they reinforce the emotional connection employees have with their workplace. Individual creativity and job performance improve as a result.  

As more employers make concerted efforts toward instilling healthier company cultures, the traditional corporate structure can be challenging to unlearn. Here are four ways to strip the corporate persona and become an authentic leader. 

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Acknowledge strengths and weaknesses

Traditional corporate culture that prioritizes results and profit rather than employee well-being creates pressure for workers to meet unrealistic expectations. As a result, employees are not acknowledged for the individual strengths they bring to the team and, over time, can disengage from the company mission. 

Last year, Gallup reported that less than 15% of U.S. employees were actively engaged in their work. Leaders who don’t take their employees’ strengths and weaknesses into account often experience unhappy workers and high turnover rates. 

Leaders must focus on who employees are and how their strengths can best align with company goals. Doing so helps them better understand how employees can positively impact an organization to meet strategic growth initiatives. Fostering authenticity in the workplace means people are allowed to have weaknesses (including leadership). No one is perfect, and acknowledging weaknesses can help people be more self-aware and leverage the strengths of others. Leading by example is an opportunity to authentically show their own strengths and weaknesses.   

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Leaders can provide support by collaborating with team members on their own professional development roadmap that positions each individual for success. Working to maximize and build upon each employee’s unique skills and talents helps workers hone their strengths to become more productive members of an organization. Some examples might include monthly or quarterly meetings that highlight team or individual accomplishments, employee recognition programs, intentional goal setting, or professional development opportunities, such as conferences or continuing education.   

Recognize real and perceived biases

Unconscious bias in the workplace occurs when an employee—influenced by their background, culture, or personal experience—makes a quick judgment or assessment of a peer or situation. Bias can surface from age, gender, and race, among other factors.  

Bias presents a barrier for organizations working to foster a truly diverse, equitable, and inclusive work environment if not appropriately addressed. Effective leadership requires an active awareness of bias. Leaders must be intentional in their efforts to limit its impact on an organization. 

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Deloitte’s inaugural inclusion survey found that 60% of employees report bias in the workplace. And 84% believe it negatively affects their happiness, confidence, and well-being.  

Leaders must cultivate a respectful and collegial space to recognize and discuss bias. This helps everyone reflect on how individual perspectives can influence their opinions of others. This is the power of encouraging a culture of authenticity.  

The process of challenging one’s own biases takes work and effort; it doesn’t happen overnight. When leaders take time to listen and reflect, they set an example to their team on how to be someone who seeks understanding and champions a learning culture to ensure that their biases don’t negatively influence business decisions. 

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Celebrate the “whole” employee

In the past, workplace identity was often independent of personal identity. Employees created workplace personas to meet expectations set by traditional corporate culture. These personas, however, prevented employees from exhibiting behaviors true to themselves. This leads to disengagement, and ultimately productivity and goals suffer.   

Rather than creating a workplace that demands a buttoned-up, sterile identity, leaders can cultivate a culture that allows employees to be a whole, real person with themselves and each other. 

When leaders are mindful of employee identity and create space for employees to self-reflect on workplace goals, they help employees identify the shared values between their professional and personal lives. In doing so, employees are more likely to challenge themselves, create a more enjoyable work environment, and strive for balance in their lives.  

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For example, ask employees to choose one word that serves as a through-line connecting aspects of their personal and professional lives. Picking a “word of the year” can help focus intention, encourage personal growth, and prompt connection between employees and leaders. In doing so, leaders can more easily encourage employees to be intentional about the type of employee and person they can become.  

Eliminate poor internal talk tracks

The traditional corporate environment can demand a great deal of time and effort from employees to achieve results, often without praise for a job well done. Employees can question their ability to meet organizational expectations as a result.  

Unmet expectations encourage the development of damaging internal talk tracks that discredit achievements and prevent success. This occurs when employees doubt their abilities. A lack of constructive feedback, unclear communication, lack of goals, extreme stress, and existing mental health conditions can compound the problem. The repetition of this false narrative can harm the employee’s career trajectory. 

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An examination of workplace imposter syndrome published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine found that more than 50% of working professionals believe they don’t belong in their roles. Employees with imposter syndrome are less likely to contribute meaningful work, and their job satisfaction suffers as a result. 

Leaders who embrace positive talk tracks for themselves are more apt to demonstrate confidence in and forgiveness for their employees. Employees, in turn, begin to eliminate their own negative self-talk and instead focus on contributing to organizational productivity. 

Creating an authentic work environment that employees enjoy, whether in person or virtual, requires a leader to give their full attention and support. Leadership styles will need to courageously break the corporate mold to introduce an authentic self who is welcome to the workplace.  

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Authentic leadership means acknowledging employee strengths and weaknesses, recognizing unconscious bias, eliminating negative self-talk, and providing employees with personal and professional growth to benefit the success of an organization and its people. 


Amy Brown is the founder and CEO of Authenticx, the software platform that analyzes and activates patients’ voices at scale to reveal transformational opportunities in healthcare.


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