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In the early 16th century, Niccolo Machiavelli famously wrote, “It is better to be feared than loved if you cannot be both.” If we look at modern-day leaders, this seems to corroborate Machiavelli’s observation. Fear can be an effective mobilization tool in the short-term. But research suggests that leading with fear is, at best, a shortsighted business strategy.
Striking fear into the hearts of your employees taps into some of their oldest survival mechanisms. As researchers from Penn State, Harvard, and Cornell Universities wrote in a 2009 article published in Research in Organizational Behavior, humans’ fear of challenging authority figures stems from our evolutionary history. Obeying fearsome leaders helped early humans to survive, and an intimidating boss activates the same instincts in 21st-century workers.
When employees face fear, they typically clam up. They hold back rather than take the risk of voicing a contrary opinion or proposing a novel approach. A study conducted by an international team of researchers and published in the Journal of Business Research in 2018 found that by encouraging defensive silence, fearsome leaders end up stifling their employees’ creativity and initiative.
Workers need a sense of safety to be creative. As a leader, you can cultivate this kind of culture by frequently interacting with your employees and encouraging diverse opinions. That means receiving your staff’s input with respect and sending the message that mistakes are a valuable part of the learning process.