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Create fear - Be a nice leader


We all want peace in our lives and to live in harmony with others. As social animals we have a deep abiding desire to get along and not rock the boat too much. The thought of not being liked by those we care about is sufficient motivation to avoid having tough conversations and giving candid feedback. Unfortunately being nice is sometimes the opposite of what we should do if we want to avoid creating a climate of mistrust and fear.


The idea that being nice can create fear was reinforced again for me recently when I saw how well intentioned actions created unintended consequences. I saw how a leaders’ desire to be nice to others ultimately created a climate of fear and mistrust.


This leader is a former client of mine. An intelligent and well-educated professional, he occupies a senior role in a respected company and has been blessed by a successful career so far and a loving close family. He genuinely cares about other people and does not want to cause them any distress. He values his relationships with others greatly and is hesitant to do anything that would put his relationship with them in jeopardy. Which is part of his problem.

To Care and Belong is Human


I should say its probably a problem for all of us to a lesser or greater degree - unless you live a solitary life as a hermit in a cave or are a socially dysfunctional human being. You see our blessing and our problem is that we have a deeply rooted need to interact, cooperate and get along with others. Psychologists refer to this basic drive as communion. Its part of our makeup, and forms the basis of social cohesion for any species that have strong social structures and bonds.


Part of our success in mastering our environment and eliminating a lot of pain and suffering is attributable to our capacity to cooperate and work together. We need to connect to others and experience our lives with and through them. We care deeply about what others think of us, with approval and acceptance of others becoming the glue that binds us, and stops the fragmentation of our communities, or stops us harming each other when we don't get what we want.

Think about it. Our laws, which are designed to protect us from each other, would not work unless we cared about each other enough. I have seen first hand the inside of prisons and what happens to young men who no longer care about others. They, (or should I say we?) have the capacity to do terrible things to others if we feel that nobody cares about us.

If You Can’t Say Something Nice…

So what has this got to do with my former client? His desire to be approved of and accepted by his team and his peers means that he is the poster boy for a value that my mother, who was also a school teacher, shared repeatedly with my siblings and I. “If you can’t say something nice about someone, don't say anything at all”. This seems to be a principle that my client has taken to heart because even when members of his team fail to perform to standard or deliver important organisational outcomes, he will avoid having the tough conversation with them and is afraid of giving candid feedback.


After a while his boss the CEO and his peers on the senior leadership team start to question the performance of these team members. They start to put pressure on him to raise the bar and deal with their performance because their poor results and lack of progress are starting to hinder everyone else’s results.

Pass Down Management

So my former client has a performance conversation – of sorts. He tells his team member that he thinks that she is doing a good job however there are others on the senior leadership team who don't.


When asked for specifics, he can’t provide them because to do so would require him to be candid about the performance issues. So instead he is vague and ambiguous. The most important thing to him is to preserve the warmth between himself and the team member.

Without any specifics, what the team member hears and interprets from the grey and indistinct comments from her manager is that the CFO, CEO, CMO, CIO - or some other convenient C - “doesn’t like you”. After all, in the absence of specific feedback there is no other plausible reason for the lack of affirmation of her efforts and talents.


Her manager likes her and thinks she is doing a good job, there are no specific issues that anyone is bringing to her attention so the only reasonable conclusion she can come to is that someone in the top team just doesn't like her. As the team member moves from confusion and uncertainty towards anger and frustration, she has no choice but to direct it towards the rest of the senior leadership team and the CEO.

A Protected Species

Here’s where it gets interesting – and sadly worse. Having no clear feedback on which to make adjustments, the team member falters. Having lost the confidence of others she retracts and moves into protection and survival mode. Having now withdrawn from an active role in organizational life she has sealed her fate. Unable or unwilling to produce the goods, she is taken out of her critical role and moved into a lower value, less critical role. For her manager this is a place she can “recover”. For his peers this is a place where her lack of performance is not an issue. She is now in what we call the window seat. Able to gaze out the window and watch the passing scenery but no longer driving the bus, no longer able to express her real potential.


As time goes on she is joined by more of her peers, marginalised and demotivated by the unfortunate choices of their manager, until there is a small cohort of them. A small group that lunch together, hurt and afraid, whispering conspiratorially about the terrible CEO and senior leadership team that “don't like us”, often challenging their decisions and choices but never publicly for fear of being punished – again. Feeling unable to exert control over their careers or their fate, mistrustful of the ultimate authority in the organisation, they become depressed, fearful, and resentful. With their confidence shot there is little prospect of them leaving for greener pastures so they remain trapped fearfully in the psychological prison created unintentionally for them by their manager, whilst holding the rest of the senior team responsible for their incarceration.


My former client, their manager, feels guilty that his friends and teammates have been marginalized and mistreated and so seeks to protect them from any further harm. They become a protected species in the ecosystem he has created, never receiving tough feedback, never put under performance pressure, always defended whenever their contribution is called into question and shuffled from one cushy role to another.


Fear Comes Home to Roost

Unfortunately this ecosystem is not immune from the pressures and demand of the larger organisational system. As demands for productivity increase and the organisation must do more with less, restructuring and redundancies inevitably occur. The most obvious roles to be cut are the lower value, less critical window seat roles, the ones occupied by my clients’ protected team members. So on one bleak day they are told the bad news, handed their final payslip and marched out of the building into an uncertain future.


For those they leave behind, there is confusion and apprehension. The stories seem true. That if the CEO and Senior Team don't like you, then your career is over. That you’ll never know how you are really viewed by those in power until you are given a window seat, marking the point at which your career stalled and providing a place to while away the time until the axe is wielded and you are made redundant. Or at least that's how it appears to many left in the organisation.


The end result is loss of control, fear, and mistrust. Without clarity of expectations and clear performance feedback, team members are unable to make adjustments to their actions that allow them to stay on track and exert some influence and control over their careers. Fear becomes their daily companion, on guard against the moment without rhyme or reason they may fall out of favour of the CEO and Senior Leadership Team. Mistrust also breeds rampantly in the absence of real, open and candid communication.


I’m sure my former client never envisaged that this would be part of his legacy. It was never his intent. He just wanted to be liked.