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Is Your Boss a Fear Monger?

BBC, by Rhea Wessel, March 03, 2016

You can see it in the boss at a European law firm who climbed the career ladder using intimidation, or in the hedge fund owner in the UK who made his managers rate colleagues' performance after each internal meeting. There was also the aerospace industry manager in France who sought to prove his staff wrong any chance he got.

These three bosses are the stuff of nightmares. Their management approach: They rule by spreading fear in an attempt to get results.

"Fear is the most primitive emotion we have, and people use it mindlessly," said Joan Kingsley, an organisational psychotherapist in London.

"Fear is the most primitive emotion we have," said Joan Kingsley, an organisational psychotherapist. Some bosses abuse it.

Sometimes, managers who use fear-based techniques are highly focused on achieving results and meeting targets. That’s what got them promoted to their roles, after all. But at some point, propagating fear will backfire, experts say.

Few people can thrive under a reign of tyranny and stress begins to set in, followed by attrition. So, why is it that "office" fear seems so effective for getting the job done?

Unlike in the wilderness where fear might be a life-or-death matter, office fear triggers angst about how we are perceived.  And that makes us susceptible to manipulation, or causes us to tolerate slights and injustices.

Fear is the most primitive emotion we have.

"The default program of being human is looking good and avoiding looking bad," said David Cunningham, a Philadelphia-based communication expert and seminar leader for Landmark, a personal and professional growth, training and development company.

But, it’s actually easier to get results in a culture where managers don’t trigger the survival instinct. Without fear, you create an environment where it's OK to question the crowd logic, show uncertainty about the path forward or ask a basic question, Cunningham said. "When there's alignment, your daily interactions, your thinking, your feelings and your emotions can be shaped by your commitment [to the work] rather than your concern for looking good,” he said.

Why managers use fear

With the oppressive work culture it creates, why do bosses use fear as a management technique in the first place? While it may be effective in the short term, experts say that it doesn't work in the long run. One reason may be that bosses who spread fear are unapproachable. It is risky to talk to the person about what is really going on. That leads to wrong assessments about the business.

Does your boss make you fear for your job? Perhaps they are plagued by their own fears or maybe they lack self-confidence? Or perhaps the person learned as a child that the authoritarian who threatens consequences gets results?Anne Tucker, a managing partner with Grey Matter Partners, an executive and leadership development consultancy in Bellevue, Washington, in the US, said many bosses don't realise they're spreading angst.

Fear comes from ambiguity, from not knowing.

"People are always the hero of their own story. If somebody is behaving in a way that seems evil to you or that seems incomprehensible or as if they have bad motives, in their own mind, they don't. It's just that their perspective is different."

"Fear comes from ambiguity, from not knowing. When you don't understand the other person, and you can't predict their actions, that creates a kind of fear. In most cases, people are not using fear intentionally. They are trying to solve problems but the way they do creates ambiguity for other people.”

Document and wait

Keep a detailed log of what's happening.  Include times, dates, places, dialogue, and names of those involved, since you will need this information to show that the treatment was ongoing, Kingsley said. It's probably best to do this at home in a notebook and avoid electronic capture to keep your notes from getting leaked. The notes could help you recount what happened and prove the behaviour was ongoing, if you needed to defend your job or report your side of the story to HR.

In the European law firm where the female boss made her team downright terrified of making mistakes, there was no one in HR to turn to, since it appeared to the ranks that HR was serving the interest of the partners, not necessarily the troops. The woman who related the story had to live with the boss.

There was an underlying menace.

"There was an underlying menace. You never knew, even when she said, 'good morning,' if she really meant it," said the woman, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Eventually, the manager's practices came to light when a new boss took over the department and found the team checking every little thing two or three times to make sure there were no mistakes.

"At the beginning, he couldn't understand why people were behaving that way, but then he realised they were all living in a state of fear and anxiety," said the woman. While this team escaped, the manager who wielded fear remains at the company to this day, having been promoted for bringing in clients and presenting a particular image of the firm.

Exit strategies

Sometimes, leaving a toxic, fear-based culture is the best option, particularly if you feel there is no recourse through formal channels, Kingsley said.

Kingsley who is author of The Fear-Free Organization: Vital Insights from Neuroscience to Transform your Business Culture, told BBC Capital the story of the hedge fund manager in London who required colleagues to rate one another. Her client, an individual who had worked for the hedge fund for three years, was shocked and intimidated by being rated by colleagues after every meeting — and by being asked to do the same to others.

[A client] had to take a year off and have intensive psychotherapy to recover.

"Everybody brings their iPads to the meetings and makes notes about the performance of the other people at the meeting,” Kingsley said. “What you get is a herd mentality. If people suss out that the leader is displeased with a certain person, then people will say what they think the leader wants them to say."

Kingsley's client eventually left the company and soon after had an emotional break down. "He was supposed to go into a new job, but he had to take a year off and have intensive psychotherapy to recover his sense of self and his self-confidence," she said.

Laugh it off

Another option for dealing with fear-mongers: laugh it off or reflect the behaviour back on the boss. That's what a woman in the aerospace industry in southern France did when she encountered a manager who used fear tactics.

"He put constant pressure on about delivering results," said the woman, who did not want to be identified. "He was loved by his own boss. This guy did get his team to deliver — massively."

The woman was able to shrug off the behaviour because she had previous experience with intimidating personalities, including an overbearing personal relationship. " As soon as this terrible manager tried to get at me regularly, prove me wrong and accuse me of being a liar, I just looked at him and felt, 'Oh, you poor sick person. If you have to create a fearful environment, you have a very sad story to tell.'."