#25 from R&D
Innovator Volume 2, Number 2
to Engender Fear...or at Least a High Degree of Anxiety
Feinberg is chairman of BFS Psychological Associates, Inc. in New
York. He's an
international speaker and organizational consultant.
Fear is making a
comeback as a management tool.
Or at least it looks that way on television. You may have seen the commercials. A boss's scathing glare petrifies the subordinate who telexed
something instead of faxing it.
Underlings sit around a conference table gulping in
trepidation, awaiting their superior's arrival.
A young executive's scared face fills the screen as it
dawns on him that the prospect chose a competitor who is
My generation was
weaned on fear. But
during the past 20 years, fear of the boss had gone out of
fashion. The boss was
just one of the boys (and, latterly, girls)—democratic, caring,
benign and patient.
But the pendulum
is swinging back. Benignity
is not chic any more. However,
before we start wringing our hands, let's examine the matter
objectively. Is fear
a useful management tool?
the right kind of fear. There
are two kinds of fear that are primarily caused by management
fear" and "focused fear."
fear is chronic. Its
victims are more of less anxious all the time—not necessarily
scared of particular events or consequences, but just frightened.
Workers toiling in a miasma of apprehension are always
afraid of the boss, whose moods are unpredictable but whose
punishment may be swift.
such conditions, performance suffers.
One former FBI executive related to me an incident
concerning J. Edgar Hoover, a world-class fearmonger.
One of Hoover's many quirks was his demand that no memo
should exceed one page, with wide margins.
An agent ran into trouble getting his reports onto one
page, so he encroached on the prescribed margin width.
Hoover wrote back, "Good analysis, but watch the
borders." Since no subordinate was willing to question "The
Chief," the FBI dispatched agents to the Canadian and Mexican
borders, to "watch."
Nobody knew what they were looking for, but for a while,
these borders were watched as never before.
The CEO of a
giant electronics company, renowned for his outspoken impatience,
became annoyed at a marketing presentation.
He marked a cross next to the presenter's name.
The action was noticed by the hapless speaker's superior.
Next day, the presenter was fired.
The CEO was startled, saying, "I didn't mean to have
examples of extreme behavior caused by chronic, nebulous fear.
Simply stated, scared people don't think straight, and they
make mistakes. It
doesn't take courage to instill fear in subordinates. Or brains, either. There
is always an implicit threat in the boss/subordinate relationship.
The person with the power to withhold money, recognition
and promotion—and ultimately the power to fire—has the
capacity to inspire fear. Wallace
Rasmussen, former CEO of Beatrice Foods, says, "It's easy to
control by fear. It's
also the most destructive and counterproductive way of
not throw the baby out with the bath water. You can use focused fear with telling effect.
According to the former vice president of Burlington
Industries, James Donahue, "fear cannot be a basic component
in the management process. However,
fear in specific circumstances does become an operative condition
which the perceptive manager must understand."
The key to
positive use of fear is to give the individual a way of doing
something constructive to get rid of the fear.
Immanuel Kant distinguished between two kinds of despair.
Those who are gripped by "depressed despair" are
paralyzed by it; those in a state of "defiant despair"
are willing to fight. Extrapolating
from Kant, we can say that "depressed fear" is
destructive, while "defiant fear" motivates people to
Here are three
recommendations to consider when it is useful to engender fear, or
at least a high degree of anxiety.
as an emergency boost to performance.
Your operation faces a critical deadline.
Your management style has been participatory.
Your key people are used to deliberating, discussing,
kicking things around. As
you face them today, you can see they're ready for the same.
talk about it. Just
DO it, or else!" When
you're under pressure, when you don't want innovative
give-and-take, but rather concentrate on detail and thorough
execution of routine, use a jolt of fear.
as a clincher in performance reviews.
The purpose of review is improvement.
When people are told that their performance is substandard,
they naturally get scared. Some
managers go out of their way to ease such fears.
According to Joel Smilow, chairman of Playtex, this is a
fear is a reaction to an objective assessment, it's healthy and
positive. People are
entitled to honesty. If
honesty is frightening, they will work harder to improve."
The key here is to give the criticized employee a way of
dispelling the fear by following agreed-on plans for improvement.
as a stimulus to seek help for a personal problem.
A subordinate is drinking—long lunch hours, bleary
afternoons, muddled performance.
You know you've got to talk to him.
You like the guy. You
understand that he has problems.
So you make your interview as gentle as possible,
suggesting in a kindly way that he try to get straightened out.
You don't even hint that he might lose his job, since this
will only make him feel worse.
The fear of getting fired is often the only stimulus that
will break through the wall of self-justification the drinker or
drug-abuser builds around his problem.
As an adviser to the National Council on Alcoholism, I know
the massive denial of the alcoholic.
Use the threat to demand that the problem person get
effective help, fast. You
are being unkind if you don't employ fear in this case.
Fear has a
fallout. While a
threat can generate a desperately needed short-term boost in
performance, it may lead to long-term resentment of the boss who
caused the fear. You
can help to minimize the fallout in two ways:
1) Make the
fear situational, not personal—emphasize that the employee
should be afraid of the consequences of his own actions, not of
you as a person; 2) When
the emergency injection of fear-adrenaline has done its work,
offer congratulations on a job well-done and indicate the
emergency is over.
It's bad to
keep subordinates in a miasma of chronic fear.
But concentrated doses of pinpointed fear—when
accompanied by the means of overcoming the fear—can be a useful
management tool. A
judicious use of realistic fear—can get the results that enable
you to assume the nice-guy role again.
Authority means power, and power can inspire fear.
When necessary, use it.
Otherwise, you'll lose it.