Part 8 – Management Through Fear Is Not A Good Corporate Culture


I’ve worked with and in various companies and corporations in different industries. One thing I’ve come away with from my experience is that for the most part all business entities manage through fear.


Now you may argue this, but hear me out. If you’re ready to contradict me, that proves another thing. You don’t like either managing through fear, or being managed by it. Let’s all assume no one does, and that management through fear is not a good corporate culture to have. Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, let me get to the real point of this article.


Every business has a “culture”. This is the social aspect of a company on a day to day basis. Sometimes it’s mandated in highly structured or highly secret environments. Sometimes, it’s directed by design. More often than not, a culture evolves within a company as it grows or fails, and tends to be more of an afterthought—it doesn’t contribute to the bottom line. Or does it?


I worked in a successful computer company, Tandem Computers (bought by Compaq, then by HP). Back in those days saying “I have an open-door policy” was more than personal marketing and meant something. Any employee could schedule time with pretty much any other employee at any level. We also had company paid sabbaticals; six consecutive weeks off every four years of employment (in addition to normal vacation, etc.). We also had “Friday Beer Busts” where employees within an office would all gather at the end of the week to network, catch up, socialize, and reconnect from being on the road. Everyone also got to go to conferences and take training.


Yes there were problems (surprisingly few), and yes this would never “fly” in today’s environment. Granted. My point is, the corporate culture was fairly open and conducive to working hard and being rewarded with time spent where you didn’t have to work. This was not really a “startup” or bootstrap company. This is a company whose hardware and software still runs most business critical environments such as stock exchanges, telco, manufacturing, medical, and ATM networks.


So, why did Tandem choose to do this?  It obviously cost them employee time and money. They  saw value in their employees and rewarded them. It was an investment in the people. It was also more than an incentive. You worked hard (with a capital H). The company knew this and used it as a means of employee retention. It improved morale, creativity, and productivity. It was an investment in the individual rather than in the corporation. That’s not a perspective held by many large corporations now. We were employees, not “human resources” to be measured and adjusted.


I’m sure most of you have worked in an awful company at one time or another, so I won’t provide an example. Draw your own.


So, let’s get back to “fear”. Most companies manage through fear. Not overtly and not intentionally, but the corporate culture is set up in such a way that fear is the driving force and the thing which stifles productivity and creativity. The following are just examples and not a comprehensive list. Also, I’m not saying all companies have these. Your’s may not and should consider yourself lucky. There are exceptions to all rules. I’m just offering these up for thought since I have come across one or more of these in various companies.


Let’s start with the big one of the big three first:


1 – Fear of being fired.


If you suffer from this fear you’re not alone, most people tend to hide, keep a low profile, hunker down and “just do the job”. Don’t stand out. Some people, on the other hand, hunker down, and work harder to stand out so that they reduce the chances of getting fired. In both cases, you “conform”. (Sorry, HR tells us we aren’t allowed to use the term “fired” and we aren’t allowed to “fire” anyone because the company might get sued.)  Fear.


2 – Fear of not “making your numbers”


“If we don’t make our quarterly numbers, we will lose headcount.”  We all know what that really means. No one actually questions who makes these numbers, what is the justification, and whether it is based on the reality in the trenches. Unless you’re the one making the numbers. So why don’t people question?


3 – Fear of embarrassment


If you ask a seemingly stupid question and someone calls you out on it, in all probability you are being called out because the person being asked doesn’t know the answer and is embarrassed to admit it. Managers don’t like being made to look stupid or being told they don’t know what they are talking about. Employees don’t ask questions because they feel they should know the answer—after all it’s their job. Asking would lead to embarrassment, and potentially the fear of losing your job.


4 – Fear of litigation


This is number two in the big three. Pretty much every business now has more legal process than corporate process in place, with “mandatory” training. You don’t do things for fear of the company being sued and you losing your job. You still get sued, and employees will still break the rules. Just read some corporate headlines. Fear of litigation is a big horse collar around a business, but in a lot of respects required.


5 – Fear of (not) finding out


You’re an employee. You have a question or you have a suggestion on how to improve something. You go to your manager and they listen say they will follow up, Months later nothing has changed. You do this several times with different ideas, same result. Now you fear you are just a nuisance to your manager and stop being creative.


Which leads to the next fear…


6 – Fear of not being important enough


You as an employee have a great idea that affects another department. So you bypass your manager and go up the chain. Later, you get smacked down by your manager for going around him without his approval. You stop being creative because your manager feels he is important enough to make the decision on behalf of the other department and it’s his “job to manage you”.


7 – Fear of violating corporate management process.


This is the third of the big three. In a lot of corporations, the management process is itself seen as a workflow environment. Anything that disrupts this throws the monkey in after the wrench. Everyone needs to follow the process. Creativity, talking directly to people, trying to alter the process, or even in some situations, asking who is in charge of the process (assume this is not a security-driven environment) is a no-no, and anyone doing so is subject to various penalties because you’ve disrupted the company.


8 – Fear of going broke, or out of business

First, as an employee these are tied directly to the fear of being fired.  As an owner, etc. you don’t fear going out of business. you fear what that implies; fear of going broke (fired by your company when it dies) and being embarrassed by failure to succeed.


Now, obviously this is not managing through fear in the dictatorial sense, but a more elusive and underlying sense. You may not agree with some of these. As I said, they may not apply to you, your company or situation. But ask yourself this, honestly, are you part of the “process” and trying to protect it for one of these reasons?


So corporate culture is important. It’s not only important in the early days of a company where creativity and wearing multiple hats allows the company to be flexible and adapt. It’s also important in large established corporations. A startup needs to take these fear-points and work to minimize these as the company grows.


I’m not advocating being disruptive, causing disruptions for disruption sake. I’m just saying large corporate cultures have evolved where certain things are seen as non-productive, either with someone’s time or the process as a whole. If you hit an employee on the head often enough and they will stop doing something for fear of being hit on the head again. And unfortunately, this goes all the way up to the CEO who fears the investors and The Board which fears…


So how do you handle these fear-points?  With difficulty if you’re established (and large). If you’re a startup, you need to:


1 – Allow the open flow of questions and information, regardless of what an immediate manager thinks of them. (..but a company’s not a democracy… I never said it was, but you need more than a single set of eyes on any given question or problem, not just the immediate manager’s).


2 – There are no stupid questions, just questions that are thought to be stupid because they may be embarrassing to someone.  Allow employees to ask. Have discussions.  Even debate.  Stupid questions often lead to insights that are valuable.


3 – Creativity needs to be sponsored and encouraged. Even if it’s not a good idea or an idea you want to implement, creativity needs to be rewarded appropriately, not discouraged. After all you may not want to implement the idea in your company, but a competitor may, or your employee if so disposed on their own.


4 – You can’t do beer busts (fear of being sued), and you can’t afford to pay your employees for 6 weeks of vacation every 4 years, so what can you do?  Do some easy things. Take them out to lunch once a month or quarter. Have a softball game or a picnic. It doesn’t have to be expensive. Do NOT NOT NOT EVER (NOT) send them to a “team-building / pep rally” event. They will in most cases see this as phony and artificial. Well you can try this if your “team” is falling apart and you’re about to go under as a company. It’s better to have employees that want and like working for you, than trying to brainwash them into thinking it. The point is have them relax “off the clock”, not at a pep-rally.  You don’t have to market your company to your own employees, if you do, you have bigger issues.


5 – Reward your employees for accomplishments. Again you don’t have to buy them a car, but a certificate, or a badge, or a plaque on the wall helps morale, helps motivation, and retention. Roll that in with a company-paid meal (don’t forget spouse or significant other) and then your employee’s will know it’s worth more that the paper the certificate is written on.


6 – If you can’t afford to buy things as rewards, you can always offer time as a reward. Either time off, or time to work on personal projects using company resources. You’re a young company, you don’t have much to lose. If you’re a large corporation, this isn’t a problem either, you have lots of squandered resources, and you can build a “process” around it.


7 – No one is too important to talk to. Remember your employees are your clients as well. They may not be buying a mainframe from you, but they are still your customers. If you value your customers with the deep pockets more than an individual employee who is literally or figuratively sweating for you, what message are you sending your employees about their worth to you?


8 – Never say “I don’t have time”. We all have time. Some of us choose not to use it wisely.  And if you’re “booked solid through next year”, you better be.  If nothing else, at least delegate to someone who has decision making capability on your behalf.


9 – Be honest with your employees. If you say you will do something. Do it. Follow up with them. Don’t promise and then let it drop hoping they will forget. Most won’t. The flip side is, expect honesty from your employees in return. It’s only fair. Don’t compromise on this for fear of being embarrassed.


10 – Your job is not to “manage” your employees, your job is to get your employees to be as productive and happy as possible. Keep out of their way. They are the SMEs (subject matter experts) at their jobs. You’re probably not. That’s why you hired them.


There’s a lot more I can throw in, but that is enough.  That’s my perspective. That’s what I aspire to.


Would anyone want to work in a company that had any of the fear-points I  mentioned?


A lot of people still work for companies that do.






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