Does Your Leadership Style Scare Your Employees?

Does Your Leadership Style Scare Your Employees?

Published Originally in the Harvard Business Review

Most of us have experienced the misery of working for a boss who intimidates employees while charming superiors and customers. But it’s hard to figure out if you may be that kind of boss. You might think you are doing a good job, getting results by pushing people past their comfort zones, but what if they experience it as being afraid of you?

How your employees feel about your style impacts business performance. According to a 2018 study, managing employees with pressure tactics resulted in more than a 90% increase in the predicted turnover of employees, while using more inspirational tactics was related to roughly a 68% decrease in likely turnover. And research shows that employees of toxic bosses engage in more counterproductive work behaviors as a form of retaliation against their colleagues and leaders.

As an executive coach, I work with clients who are dealing with intimidating bosses as well as those who exhibit negative tendencies themselves. Here are five ways to ensure that your employees don’t experience any unnecessary trepidation around you.

Assume they are afraid of you, and then reflect and observe. Given the power differential, asking employees if you make them anxious probably won’t yield the truth. Think about how you behave in various situations. Do you treat your employees with the courtesy you give to customers, or do you take them for granted? Do you go overboard with your tone and mannerisms when expressing dissatisfaction? In addition to looking at your behavior, observe your employees’. Do people withdraw or fail to make eye contact when around you? Do employees seem reluctant to present an opposing point of view?

Ask open-ended questions about team culture. Gather broader insight about how your employees see your team and feel about work. Ask them to describe a time in the last six to 12 months when they felt unable to express their ideas and a time when they felt free to do so. By asking “when” instead of “if” they felt a certain way, you will prompt them to scan their memories for real examples instead of simply saying no and forgoing the opportunity to share.

Check whether you are projecting your fears onto others. Many leaders cope with their fear of failure by pushing themselves and others harder, instilling the same fear in their teams. Consider a VP whom I coached in a global Fortune 100 company, whose staff walked on eggshells around him. An insatiable corrector of his employees’ work, he saw himself as a perfectionist and was proud of it. Recently promoted, he was experiencing the classic growing pains of becoming a more senior executive. Instead of reallocating his time to strategic concerns and empowering his team to handle tactical needs, he micromanaged, and readily admitted that he was projecting onto the group his worries about being able to personally deliver.

Shift your ratio of connection and correction. Executives who connect rather than correct remove fear in the workplace, replacing it with meaningful dialogue that helps to co-create a shared definition of success. It doesn’t take a long time to shift away from the correction habit. Over the span of a month, a CEO whom I coached wrote three words in a journal every time he had the urge to correct a team member: “Connect with them.” He would then suspend his judgment and invite them to discuss a path forward. He would say, “I know I usually correct you before getting your perspective first, and I want to change that because I value your contribution. Let me also share why correcting this is important to me, so we’re on the same page and can decide a plan together.”

Show vulnerability. Leaders who create safe cultures welcome dissent from subordinates and concede power every once in a while in the service of increasing the team’s commitment. But this takes vulnerability. Consider whether you have ever, without a hint of frustration or defensiveness, allowed your employees to prove you wrong. If you haven’t, consider doing so, and don’t worry too much about whether it will make you look weak. Instead, remember the pratfall effect: Generally competent people are deemed to be more appealing when they make a mistake. And research shows that likability is a requisite for being seen as a successful leader.

Some bosses believe that being aggressive is the only way to get results, and there are times when that approach works. But when they manage with no awareness of employees’ experience, leaders stand to lose their key talent and invite more dysfunction into the workplace, which limits productivity. By better understanding how your people view your leadership style, you can make sure your behavior doesn’t cross the line between pushing them hard and pushing them away.

AUTHOR: Nihar Chhaya is an executive coach to senior leaders at global companies, including American Airlines, Coca-Cola, GE, and Dell. A former F500 corporate head of talent development, he is the President of PartnerExec, helping leaders master interpersonal savvy for superior business and strategic outcomes. Access his tip sheet on delivering tension-free feedback to your team.


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