Monday, March 13, 2006

Managing By Fear

The Financial Times ran a column (subscription req’d) by Lucy Kellaway this morning extolling the virtues of “scariness” in managers. Some of the advice for managers who don’t think they’re scary enough, or feel conditioned by years of coddling their employees? Invade personal space. Shout. Make up a position and stick to it.

Kellaway is of course being satirical in her so-dry, is-this-really-her-opinion? kind of way. But as readers of Martin Lukes know, Kellaway is dead-on in skewering the nascent idiocies of corporate life, and one trend that seems to be percolating is the “death of mentoring” and the benefits of leading through fear. There have always been managers like this, and in some settings they may even be effective. The problem is that so few managers are able to straddle the line between demanding peak performance and maintaining high levels of employee loyalty and creativity. Too much fear, and your employees will certainly be motivated, but they won’t bring their best work or critical ideas. The consequences of being shot down aren’t worth taking the risk. Anyone who has spent any time at all working with top level management in a large corporation will have witnessed the dynamic of senior level bullying shortening – or eliminating – healthy debate.

Conversely, the kind-hearted, mentoring manager will engender great loyalty among his or her people. Unfortunately, without a bit of scariness – or at least a sense of accountability and high expectations – even highly-motivated employees may not do their best. The organization will be a haven for slackers, and resentment will set in among the high performers.

Despite these drawbacks to the "soft" style of managing, I hope Kellaway hasn't spotted a truly emerging trend in dispensing with understanding and involvement in the workplace. The best managers are able to maintain high expectations by staying on top of the business and the work being done, but also engender employee loyalty by welcoming ideas and providing feedback and recognition. I don’t think it’s an easy balance to achieve, but those who make it work get phenomenal results.

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