Do You Understand Your Employees Fears?

I've heard managers say "I like my employees to be a little bit afraid for their jobs, it keeps them motivated". When I was younger and heard this, it seemed to make some sense, even if in my gut something told me it was wrong. Now that I am older and more experienced, I have one thought: "what a moron".

Fear can be a great motivator - but when it is continuous, it becomes a detriment. Humans cannot function well in a constant state of fear. The idea that a manager would use fear as a motivator is beyond silly. Over the long haul, employees are better off working in a psychologically safe environment.


If the manager doesn't instill fear, that doesn't mean fear doesn't exist. The question each manager should ask themselves: what do my employees fear? This is helpful to know for two reasons: first, if they are willing to share fears, you most likely have a psychologically safe environment; second, it enables the manager to do things to try and offset the fear or at least be empathetic.


I'm not saying that a manager has to be responsible for helping the employee overcome any fears, particularly ones outside the workplace. Managers aren't therapists.


What brought this up was an article I read titled The Fear Black Employees Carry. The point that struck me was that as racism has become more overt, some minorities might start to wonder who they can trust. This portion of the article was especially poignant:

"Both professional and blue-collar employees and leaders have told me that they worry for their own safety and those of loved ones, even in mundane activities such as shopping and walking to work. They have seen the veil of civility slip from some people they’ve known for a long time, who now treat them more contemptuously. And they worry that coworkers, subordinates, bosses and company leaders may turn out to be racist, or inadvertently say something hurtful because they are blithely unaware of the pain of racism."


Managers can't make someone feel safe while grocery shopping, but they can be damn sure that they feel safe in the workplace. This requires being an ally. A manager can't be an ally until he recognizes the fear that employees feel.