Management by Fear Isn’t an Effective Lever

June 6, 2012

In a recent post, Is Fear a motivator? I pointed out that while fear is may be considered a convenient motivational lever by some managers, “management by fear” seriously constrains organizational performance because the negative feelings and stress associated with it can cause people to literally freeze up. It can also mask problems and issues that you need to be aware of.

Bob Sutton referenced a study in his book The No Asshole Rule that was conducted by Amy Edmondson which illustrates how this can happen. Edmondson wanted to study how leadership and co-worker relationships influenced drug-treatment errors in eight nursing units. She and the Harvard Medical School physicians funding her research were at first puzzled when questionnaires demonstrated that units with the best leadership and co-worker relationships reported the most errors. Ten times as many errors, in fact!

How could this be? The answer to this dilemma became apparent quickly enough. In poorly-run units, fear was rampant and the nurses were saying things like “The environment is unforgiving; heads will roll,” “you get put on trial,” and that the nurse manager “treats you as guilty if you make a mistake” and “treats you like a two-year-old.” Nurses in these units were too afraid to report errors, even though it was vital to do so.

The attitudes of nurses in the best-run units were strikingly different. Nurses in these units said things like “mistakes were natural and normal to document” and that “mistakes are serious because of the toxicity of the drugs, so you are never afraid to tell the nurse manager.”

Which units have the greatest potential to make meaningful improvements as well as continually improve and provide value to the customer? (Or avoid nasty lawsuits?) It’s not too hard to figure out, is it?

Fear and intimidation may give you the comfortable illusion of a well-run, well-oiled organization, but there will be trouble below the surface, hidden from your view. People become more concerned with protecting themselves first, before doing things that may help the company because they may get caught in a “negative spotlight.”

Your ability as a leader to truly drive change and improvement necessitates the ability to pull back the curtain to reveal the true state of your organization. This requires creating an environment that encourages people to feel safe and openly talk about problems and mistakes without fear of reprisal. And as this study demonstrates, you may discover that you have more challenges to overcome than you may have previously thought.

Encouraging people to admit mistakes – and making it safe for them to do so – doesn’t translate into being lackadaisical about performance standards. The goal is to capture and share knowledge, to reach a deeper understanding of the work, to be real about your present execution and to work collectively to reach a higher level of execution tomorrow.

Obviously you shouldn’t be repeating mistakes; you should be creating the situation where past mistakes are prevented and new mistakes are viewed as things that inform you on what you need to do differently, creating a positive approach to improving organizational performance. In the end, fear and intimidation isn’t a lever, it’s a managerial blindfold and an impediment to organization performance.