“It is better to be feared than to be loved, if one cannot be both.”
– Niccolò Machiavelli
An age-long debate among leadership experts has always been about whether fear was a more powerful motivator in leadership compared to love. Many business leaders have made names for themselves because they were feared. Many mafia families have enjoyed generations of loyalty because of fear. Even some parents have their authority go unquestioned and instructions obeyed out of fear. Fear has indeed made many employers to be perceived as powerful by their employees. And we can record some businesses that grew at interesting rates when their CEOs were feared.
In the Renaissance period, Niccolò Machiavelli who was an Italian diplomat and political theorist published “The Prince”, a 16th-century political treatise. In it, he writes, “It is better to be feared than to be loved if one cannot be both.” Machiavelli argues that fear motivates better than love, which is why it is the most effective tool for leaders. But is this 16th-century ideology really the case in today’s modern workplace? Let’s look at both ends of the spectrum to find out.
Jack Welch, the former General Electric CEO, strongly believed that one way to keep employees working their hardest is to continually fire the poorest performers. This made employees fear him a great deal and were always striving to deliver to the best of their abilities. In his time, General Electric’s bottom line was very impressive. He was not the only leader who produced results this way. Christopher Koelsch (CEO of the LA Opera), Steve Jobs, (late CEO, co-founder, and chairman of Apple), among a plethora of other such leaders believe that it’s not possible for a leader to be liked always. In fact, some leaders believe that fear keeps employees on their toes. And they are not entirely wrong.
Generally, people perceive feared leaders to be more powerful. If you come across a CEO who looks fiery and another who looks jovial, without looking at the quality of their work, you are likely to see the scary CEO as more powerful than the jovial CEO. Even in the workplace, when a leader is feared, his employees feel as if he holds more power. Feared leaders are named so because they are usually figures of authority who give out harsh punishments and very few rewards. They believe that when fear becomes the primary motivation for employees, they’re most likely to push themselves to be excellent in their delivery to avoid being punished. Despite this drive that employees are forced to develop, the psychological safety of that organization can be compromised. This is because the relationship between leaders and their teams is likely to be strained when fear is predominant, even though fear can indeed improve performance.
Also, fear-driven employees are less likely to take risks due to their concern about the possible consequences. As a result, a fear-ridden workforce will shy away from creativity and innovation for fear of repercussions. This will obviously lead to less proactivity and an unwillingness to take initiative or act without fear of negative consequences. The end game is a decrease in originality and productivity. It is therefore not out of place to say that a culture of fear can inhibit learning and development.
“When a workforce is driven by fear, they are less likely to take risks since they are more concerned about the consequences of making mistakes.”
In contrast, leaders that are loved by their employees do not take employee care lightly, thus creating a stronger employer-employee relationship. This is the kind of relationship that cultivates a culture of respect and psychological safety in the workplace. In this environment, teamwork and productivity are guaranteed to soar because employees feel like stakeholders. In addition, it creates a healthy work environment and boosts employee retention because employees feel valued.
Andrew Liveris, who was the former CEO of The Dow Chemical Company, believes that it’s only by getting employees to like you that they will give you their best work. SunLife Organics founder and owner, Khalil Rafati also tows this line of thought. He thinks that being well-liked is an essential precursor to establishing meaningful business partnerships and opportunities. Dottie Herman, CEO of real estate brokerage firm Douglas Elliman, understands that people want to feel needed, appreciated and know that their opinion matters. So being a liked leader comes with many pros.
Despite these pros, a major con is that leaders can lose disciplinary power over their teams. These kinds of leaders hardly have the emotional strength to enforce discipline without feeling guilty, so they avoid such. The implication is that employees can become insubordinate and slack off because they know that they can get away with it.
Striking the Right Balance
Let’s look once again at Machiavelli’s quote, is it truly better to be feared than loved? It seems doubtful. Does this mean that it’s better to be loved than feared? Again, I do not think so. Leaders must learn to strike a healthy balance between fear and love so that they are not caught at either end of the spectrum. A good leader must take his/her employees’ welfare into consideration and ensure that all roles are properly spelt out alongside the consequences of breaches. This was something Jack Welch did well. A good leader must also prioritize the organization’s welfare just as important as the employee’s welfare. It’s an established principle that employees will give their best if they feel cared for but if there are no boundaries, they can become lax.
Leaders need to strike a good balance between fear and love to deliver excellent administration because going from one extreme to the next can prove detrimental to the organization. To find the balance between these two extremes,
- Leaders must be clear about office roles. You can praise their efforts and reprimand their errors, but all must be done in a psychologically safe space.
- Leaders must ensure that regular assessments are done to determine what the emotional temperature of the organisation is per time.
- Leaders must take information dissemination seriously [I prefer a flat structure] and feedback must be allowed to flow from the bottom up.
- Leaders must be empathetic; one that your employees are willing to work hard for of their own volition.
- Leaders must be deliberate about institutionalizing regular training sessions, especially among the HR team. They are the ones most positioned to identify and fix an organization’s culture if it’s too reliant on fear. HR managers are an indispensable link between employees and employers or managers. This is why they play such a big role in correcting a fear-based work culture.
Leadership is not a walk in the park. It can be quite complicated. This conversation about whether fear or love is the best tool to deploy in leadership is only the surface of the very broad subject of leadership. To be an effective leader, one must also be fully aware, prudent in making decisions and dedicated. Being loved or feared is not enough. A good leader should also lead with purpose.
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