How to Create a Fear-Based Culture

In the 16th century philosophical piece, The PrinceNiccolò Machiavelli, asserts that it is best for a leader to be both loved and feared, but if you can’t have both, then it’s better to be feared. After all, commitments made in fear are kept out of fear. And in a lot of cases, Machiavelli was probably right. Followers who fear their leader will carefully walk the line.

So how do you make your employees fear you? Here are a few suggestions.

  • Keep information to yourself. If some brave soul asked questions, be vague and noncommittal in your answers.
  • Avoid showing compassion. Employees need to know you care about them. Even if you do care, don’t show it.
  • Appear unapproachable. Don’t make time for small talk. Rush from one meeting to the next. When you are in your office, keep your door closed.
  • Don’t listen. You are the leader for a reason. You should rule make decisions accordingly. Asking for input is a sign of weakness.
  • Assign blame. If something goes wrong, somebody screwed up. Find out who that somebody is, and make sure it doesn’t happen again.
  • Be unpredictable. Keep them guessing with everything – your moods, your reactions, and in how you make decisions. The more uncertainty, the more fear.

Of course, there are a few unfortunate consequences that come with the territory of a fear-based culture, but hey, you can’t have it all, right?

  1. CYA mentality – In other words, the prevailing mentality is Cover Your…Rear. Teamwork diminishes as decisions are no longer made on what is best but on what is least likely to get us in trouble.
  2. Slow to act – Nobody wants to move unless someone else has signed off. This way if the wrong decision is made, it’s not their fault (see No. 1).
  3. Snowball effect – Fear begets fear and crap runs downhill. Leaders fear their leaders, so they instill fear in their own people, and so on and so forth.
  4. Customers suffer – Employees who are preoccupied with covering their own rears are less concerned with creating happy customers.
  5. High turnover – When other opportunities come along, employees leave (especially the best ones). Those who stay operate in survival mode.

In all seriousness, I’m not advocating for leaders to instill fear in their employees. Fear inhibits production, innovation, decision-making, progress, customer service, and of course, job fulfillment. Employees are people we should invest in, care for, and love. They are not a means to an end, and they deserve the best we have to offer of our time, our resources, and above all, our trust.

If you work in or have created a fear-based culture, building trust with your teammates and your employees is a first step to turning things around.


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