Leadership and fear are two words that shouldn’t go together. Yet sometimes, anxiety can be a motivation tool. Fear is a flight or flight adrenalin producer, so in the business world, it’s a tool that can garner attention.
Leading by producing anxiety in the short term may work to motivate employees for a while. But as a long-term strategy, whether you are a small business or an enterprise VP, it is a terrible idea.
Let’s look at the concept of anxiety and fear as a leadership tool and how it can backfire with your employees.
Who’s Afraid in a Three Percent Unemployment Economy?
Historic unemployment levels mean that your employees have more options—and they know it. This leaves businesses vulnerable to the high costs of job jumping; something Gallup says costs employers about $30.5 billion annually. This has left most employers and HR teams wondering how leadership can create an environment that improves employee retention.
The research says that creating a toxic, anxiety-filled workplace will not help you retain workers. A fearful workplace is a stressed work environment that has lower productivity, higher absences, and greater turnover. Fast Company studied the harmful effects of creating an environment of anxiety in the workplace and found:
- Fear dampens employee creativity, ownership, and initiative.
A study in Research and Organizational Behavior said the baseline for humans to follow leadership out of their fear of rocking the boat stemmed from our evolution as mammals. But following a leader out of fear when you’re a caveman is obviously a lot different than trusting leadership that instills fear in 2019. Being afraid at work means holding back instead of offering creative ideas. Forget new innovation; if employees are anxious about ridicule or backlash, they’ll never take the risk. In today’s low unemployment market, it is unlikely that you will keep these stifled workers for long.
- Anxiety doesn’t foster employee buy-in.
If your workplace culture is fearful, your employees will appear to go along with whatever you say. But engagement will suffer. Behind the scenes, there may be an underlying current of negativity that will disrupt production. Forbes says just 21% of workers are engaged. This means they’re doing just enough to avoid being fired, but they aren’t giving their best work. Gallup reports that the cost of American worker disengagement is high. These companies experience 37% higher absenteeism, 18% lower productivity, and 15% lower profitability. According to research, the quantifiable result is $3,400 lost for every $10,000 in employee salaries. When employees are fearful, they lack buy-in. When they lack buy-in, it negatively affects your bottom line.
Frontiers in Psychology published a study showing how anxious workers shut down and perform worse on problem-solving tasks, proving the business limitations of fear-inducing leadership.
Anxiety is not a long-term leadership strategy.
The characters in Frank Herbert’s sci-fi classic, Dune say, “Fear is the mind-killer.” Business leaders would do well to study this mantra as a reminder to lead not by fear but through vision and engagement with employees. Leaders who inspire will lead employees to greater productivity and improve corporate retention without falling back on limiting scare tactics that hamper long-term growth.