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Thom Dennis

Serenity in Leadership Ltd


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Is your leadership style spreading fear?

According to a global study, nearly one-quarter of UK leaders are leading with fear. How can we tackle and alleviate fear and, most importantly, ensure we aren’t propagating it ourselves?
woman with white hair in black shirt: Is your leadership style spreading fear?

If you find yourself dreading the upcoming workweek, rest assured, you're not alone. 

According to a survey conducted by LiveCareer of over 1,000 people in the US, 87% experience work-related fears. According to the Society of Human Resources Management, one in four Americans dread going to work

Many leaders acknowledge that fear is increasingly being seen in the workplace, due to financial concerns, global instability and issues around exclusion, but are unsure how to address it. 

Other leaders may themselves be the instigators of fear. By enforcing overwhelming work demands, having a heavy-handed approach or being out of touch with employees' needs.  

Work-related fears may vary from cyberphobia (fear of computers) to job security uncertainty. 

Today, there are concerns of being replaced by artificial intelligence (AI), or younger tech-savvy generations. Or indeed just because one is perceived as being too old (typically over 50!). 

Fear of risk of failure, embarrassment and not meeting (often unrealistic) targets are common. For many, it’s a case of fear of losing one’s job.  

Fear may take hold as a result of judgement. Or a particular colleague's microaggressions, exclusion, unhealthy power hierarchies, as well as overt harassment or conflict. 

Public speaking (glossophobia) is thought to be a debilitating fear amongst 15% of Britons according to YouGov

Leaders may themselves be the instigators of fear

Are leaders propagating fear?

A global study of 2,200 emerging leaders conducted by Margot Faraci found that 23% of UK leaders are leading with fear.  

The study discovered that fear-based leaders believe themselves to be confident, ambitious and intuitive. They use fear to drive performance and feel pressure is motivating. 

Leaders can propagate fear unconsciously as well as in a purely intentional way.  

Inadequate leadership practices and poor communication from superiors can cause uncertainty and fear. This leaves employees dealing with ambiguity regarding their roles and responsibilities, and the overall direction of the company. 

Failure to provide constructive feedback, clear expectations and relay information is a problem for many organisations. 

Tackling fear

Leaders who exhibit domineering and authoritarian leadership styles cause employees to be fearful of contributing, suggesting improvements or voicing concerns.  

When leaders don’t act on bullying behaviours or interpersonal conflicts within their teams, they are allowing victimisation, fear of retaliation and emotional suffering. This leads to a persisting hostile or uncomfortable environment which undermines both individual and collective success.

Ironically, fear-based leaders' behaviour is often actually rooted in a lack of confidence, and the pressures on them to deliver short-term improvements and results just exacerbate the situation. 

Being a CEO is never an easy job. They do their best but those who open themselves up to support (typically 1:1 coaching) consistently find there is a better and more productive approach that lifts stress off both them and those they lead. So, how can we tackle and alleviate fear?

Inadequate leadership practices and poor

Culture check

Problems are rarely down to one individual. If the culture allows it, the problem is likely to be systemic.  

Are all team members included and valued and is this being measured?  

Wilful blindness doesn’t help at an individual or a business level. It ultimately means you are complicit in allowing fear-inducing behaviours.  

Address poor behaviour quickly

Worryingly, Gartner says nearly 60% of workplace misconduct is not reported.  

Leaders need to create and enforce a zero-tolerance policy for any type of bullying, harassment, gaslighting, harmful gossip or extended conflict. In order to do that, they have to be sufficiently aware of their own impact on the business.  

Any instance of inappropriate behaviour must be quickly addressed to foster a safe space for employees.

Employees experiencing toxicity in the workplace will feel more confident to speak up if they think something will be done about it and they are protected. There needs to be a genuine whistleblower procedure.

Transparent communication

Encourage open communication across the whole organisation. Be a good role model with your own communication style and share relevant information about company goals, changes and expectations. 

Transparent communication reduces uncertainty, misinformation and gossip, and helps to combat fear.

Allow employees to express concerns, give feedback, voice their opinions and contribute ideas.  

Regular reviews and anonymous surveys allow employees to share without risk to their positions. 

Always actively listen and address any issue raised to promote trust, lessen anxiety and make employees feel more comfortable sharing worries and issues. 

‘Showing who is boss’, shouting over everyone else and making unilateral decisions create the perfect breeding ground for toxic overgrowth.

Any instance of inappropriate behaviour must be quickly addressed

Challenge stereotypes

Marginalised and diverse communities are more likely to experience fear. A study conducted by Catalyst found 68% of people of colour feel they need to be on guard to protect themselves from bias at work. 

Challenge stereotypes and bias and implement policies to create a culture in which employees from underrepresented groups feel accepted.  

Reinforce empathy skills

Gallup found 70% of variance in team engagement is determined solely by the manager. 

Provide leadership courses that equip leaders with transparency, fairness and empathy skills. 

Train them to be excellent coaches, strong collaborators and deep listeners who prioritise wellbeing, purpose, values and development. Good role models are essential for a thriving, positive and sustainable work environment.

Good role models are essential

Put psychological safety first

An increasingly commonly used phrase but a vital one, psychological safety means that even if it is uncomfortable, members of a team know it is acceptable to take considered risks, to express their ideas, thoughts and concerns, to ask questions and to admit mistakes — all without fear of negative consequences.  

Coaching’s a valuable tool

Being a CEO is a difficult and pressured job and can also be a very lonely one, so utilising the skills of an independent coach to help them lead more effectively and reduce fear and demotivation is invaluable. 

Organisations thrive when people thrive!

If you enjoyed this article, read: How leaders can support mental health

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