Five signs fear-based leadership is holding your business back

fear-based leadership

Motivation is an important tool for helping teach employees to become better at their jobs and more resilient. But how is it created exactly?

The source of motivation activates different areas of the brain, and therefore has different effects over the long term. For example, a sure-fire way to quickly motivate people into action is to use ‘fear of punishment’. 

Many leaders (especially in the SME space) fall into fear-based leadership by default, because we are stressed, are desperate for immediate results, or don’t feel like differing from this status quo is important until a team grows.

In these cases, fear is such a comfortable and well-worn shoe that we can slip in without really noticing. It can take the form of veiled threats and passive aggression, sneaking in and slowly poisoning the culture.

There is a concept in psychology known as ‘motivation schemas’.

With an ‘approach motivation schema’, a person is motivated to do well at work due to an expectation of future reward. With an ‘avoid motivation schema’, a person is motivated to do well at work due to fear of punishment.

Both work, however, science proves that if a person is ruled by fear, then they will struggle to innovate and their performance will decline over time. Clearly, this is a huge issue in the workplace.

Essentially, fear-based leadership can get you fast results, but it comes at a great cost. 

On the other hand, building an ‘approach motivation schema’ helps people to think constructively and strategically and enables a culture of innovation, collaboration and continuous improvement.

The challenge is that a healthy culture doesn’t happen by default, so you should start by identifying if a fear-based culture exists. After that, you can find ways to improve and build a culture of resilience.

So how can you spot fear-based leadership?

There are many ways fear-based leadership affects culture. Sometimes it’s subtle, so being able to detect the clues will help you spot it in your organisation, and also recognise when another leader is employing it with their staff. The following are a few tell-tale signs of fear-based leadership.

  • People do what they’re told, but little else. In this environment, there might be high compliance with whatever directives are sent out, but seldom would anyone step outside those narrow confines to develop valuable new ideas.
  • Talking about culture is avoided. As a systemic feature, often middle management are themselves trapped by the culture and rendered powerless, or worse, become complicit in the fear-based culture. A key indicator of this is in a team meeting, where a question is asked about the culture and it is met with an immediate dead silence… each team member’s hastily expressionless face disguising panic.
  • Innovation is a bad word. Nearly every business has made innovation a priority. However, in a fear-based culture, most staff realise that words and actions are two very different things. This happens when the punishment for failure is greater than the rewards for success. 
  • High sensitivity to bad news. This often develops inadvertently. An overloaded founder doesn’t have time to process any more bad news, so an employee coming over with anything less than positive news risks getting their head bitten off. Over time, the result is that bad news gets swept under the rug and problems are kept out of sight until they become too big to hide. 
  • Engagement scores become deceptive. As much as they are questioned, many companies still use engagement surveys. In a fear-based culture, employees start to understand that answering honestly on the engagement scores simply means they will be punishing themselves. The outcome is often that they will all be put in a room and forced to discuss why the scores are low, though due to fear, people will not speak about the true causes. 

How can your business shift from fear to resilience?

If you’ve identified a fear-based culture at work in your business, the good news is that it can be changed.


  1. Being consistent. Consistency is important, because one transgression back to the old ways can instantly evaporate months of work. 
  2. Controlling opportunities for retribution. Control and prevent potential passive-aggressive subconscious retaliation by management against employees, such as discretionary incentives and performance reviews. It’s demotivating to put in effort throughout the year, only to have it undone due to one misstep before performance review time.
  3. Developing an awareness of stress in teams. Working on your sensitivity to changes in moods and stress in teams is a useful tool in maintaining a healthy culture. Being able to notice when the team is particularly stressed — especially when combined with knowing why — can help you to recognise when people need a break or encouragement. 

All these behaviours combine to generate what we really need in the culture — a subconscious sense of safety — that translates into confident people, willing to take strategic risks that can push the organisation forward. Through a concerted effort, the team (no matter how small) gains the confidence to be resilient can take risks and be a disruptor to the marketplace.

NOW READ: Neumann, Kalanick and Holmes: When culture becomes cult

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