The Prevalence of Fear-based Management
Many managers have never experienced working for someone who has strong leadership skills. They might know nothing but fear-based management, so exhibit the behaviors their managers have modeled for them. At companies where fear-based management is prevalent, there might be nobody to call out these bad managers.
When managers function as adversaries, their employees work from a place of fear. Employees cannot do their best work in a state of fear. Neuroscience has proven that fear kills creativity and narrows people’s perceptions, so they fail to perceive many of the options and opportunities that exist.
The protective mechanism humans experience as fear is healthy when we are in fact under physical attack. It helps us to focus exclusively on the threat and engage in fight or flight behavior. This is called the default mode network—and is a state in which our stress response limits our ability to perceive new options.
The downside of this default mode being in operation at work is that the narrowing of perception prevents people from perceiving a full visual range. When we’re in this default mode, our neural pathways do not allow us to consider alternative ideas. Roles that inherently require ideation and creative thinking—such as UX strategy and design—magnify the challenges of a fear-based workplace. When you see an otherwise capable employee seem to freeze up or melt down, fear is usually the reason. Employees who are in the grip of a fear response cannot function well. Fearful employees can even lose their ability to function at a normal level.
Moreover, when the default mode network is in operation, humans excrete stress hormones, which stay in our bodies and make it even more difficult for us to focus in the future. Over time, these hormones begin to impact our health in profoundly negative ways. When we keep returning to an environment that causes fear and provokes the production of stress hormones, we experience a trauma, or a post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) reaction. When employees stay in such an environment too long, they often need to take leaves of absence for health reasons—to recover both their physical and their mental health. I have observed that many friends and colleagues who are UX professionals at the most successful companies—even companies who recognize that design is critical—have had to take leaves of absence for health reasons. Such work environments have become toxic, with managers belittling and even yelling at their employees. This is appalling behavior! We’re also seeing the quality of the products from these companies beginning to suffer because their employees are not producing their best work. They are just doing their time.
If, as a manager, you believe that making your employees fear you would drive them to deliver more, faster—beware. You’re diminishing the quality of their work. Fear-based management makes your employees resent to you and, ultimately, tarnishes your reputation. This results in a dangerous, downward spiral.
On the other hand, the effects of stress can be quite positive within a healthy work environment. I’ll talk about the positive impacts of stress in Part 2 of this column.
Employees’ Fear of Retribution
Labor statistics show that close to 80% of employees leave their jobs as a result of issues with their direct manager. Isn’t that a staggering number? However, the statistics from most companies show that, during exit interviews, employees list their direct manager as a problem only 20-40% of the time. And isn’t that scary? This discrepancy means that a large percentage of employees do not tell the truth during their exit interviews. Why? They fear retribution.
For example, they might be afraid of not receiving a recommendation from their former manager when applying for a new job. Instead, people might say they left because another role offered them change or greater opportunity—and that might in fact be true. But most employees don’t take calls from recruiters or other hiring managers unless they’re unhappy where they are.
When bad managers do not receive feedback about the destruction they cause, there is no way for them to improve. If you’re a UX leader and want to make a difference, start really listening to your employees. You’ll earn how to be a better leader.
Success Artificially Propping Up Bad Managers’ Careers
Employees working in successful, high-growth companies tend to stick around because of opportunities to earn stock options, bonuses, and promotions and because high-profile projects look good on their resume. As a result, low turnover numbers can make bad managers look better than they are. This usually continues to happen until a company experiences a downturn, when all the talent working for bad managers departs and the company experiences a mass exodus of expertise.
Bad managers typically want employees to do everything their way—the way they did things when they were individual contributors. They see themselves as the best—in part because of their promotion to a management role. Such managers often feel they need to be the smartest person in the room, but that can be a sign that they don’t have the best talent on their team. When bad managers decide everything, employees no longer need to think for themselves, and they stop caring. Bad managers sap employees’ energy and commitment and, ultimately, diminish the quality of the talent throughout the organization.
While an organization as a whole might be doing well, employees who are working for bad managers suffer. Resentful employees who work for a boss they neither like nor respect sometimes find small, passive-aggressive ways of undermining their manager and the manager’s organizational objectives. This vicious cycle tends to create adversarial, unhealthy relationships, in which employees might begin to focus on benefiting themselves rather than working for the benefit of the group or the manager. This phenomenon usually makes bad managers clamp down even harder on employees, making them even more resentful, and the downward spiral just continues.
Even if employees stick around, those who would have contributed at their highest level for a good leader, deliver the minimum for a bad manager—then do things such as work on their portfolio to prepare themselves for their next role.
Managers Are Often Adversaries—Leaders Are Advocates
One of the main differences between a manager and a leader is that managers often, quite unintentionally, function as their employees’ adversary. In contrast, great leaders function as advocates for their employees.
Transitioning from Individual Contributor to Leader
The challenge in becoming a manager is that, too often, employees who were very good at their individual-contributor role seek promotions because they think they must become a manager to expand their career. When such employees push to become managers, they often get promoted because their company does not want to lose them. Unfortunately, what made someone great as an individual contributor does not make them a great leader. The book What Got You Here Won’t Get You There: How Successful People Become Even More Successful articulates this well. The authors point out that the most successful individual contributors are successful because of their individual passion, drive, and skill in their field.
However, leadership is not about getting employees to do things your way. Great leaders hire very talented employees who are great individual contributors, with the expectation that they’ll be able to deliver stellar results in their own way. They often hire people who are smarter than they are—or more skilled in a particular area. Steve Jobs was famous for hiring only the best and brightest. He said about hiring smart people:
“We don’t hire smart people to tell them what to do. We hire smart people so they can tell us what to do.”
Once they’ve hired a team of talented employees, they paint a vision, set an objective, and coach their employees to help them successfully achieve that objective. The most certain way to alienate highly skilled employees is to try to tell them exactly what to do rather than just giving them an objective to achieve.
Other people seldom do a job in exactly the same way I would. I know I need to let my employees do things their way. I have often learned better ways of accomplishing certain tasks from my top employees. Letting people do things in their own way is a hard-learned, proven, and long-practiced leadership skill.
However, this is not to suggest that, as a leader, you cannot demonstrate your power to your employees. They need to know that you have enough power to support them and get the job done. They’ll even test you. While there are times when you’ll want your employees to recognize that you have power over them, you must be very judicious about this. Use your power over employees sparingly! The most successful leaders know this.
Hiring and Fostering Top Talent
As a leader, it’s your job to hire smart people, coach them, advocate for them, and pave the way for their success. When your employees succeed—and you give them credit for their success—you succeed. As their boss, you look good for hiring such skilled employees and being able to keep them on your team. A rising tide lifts all boats.
Bad managers might be threatened by employees who are smarter or more skilled than they are. But it’s a manager’s job to spot great talent and coach individual contributors to produce work that exceeds expectations. That’s what the company needs.
Great leaders can spot great talent and know how to attract it. In contrast, bad managers have a hard time finding talent, then have difficulty deciding who to hire. (I won’t go into how to spot great talent here because I’m going to write about that in a later column.)
Functioning as Boss or Coach?
When bad managers prescriptively tell employees how to do things, they remove the employees’ agency and diminish their creativity. That’s a huge problem in a field that requires creativity and agency! Of course, your employees need to know whether they’ve achieved a goal. If they’re off track, your job is not to criticize, but to ask them questions until they recognize for themselves that they need to find another way. If these employees still have difficulty understanding the challenges before them, define the challenges; then, acting as their coach, describe your own approach and how it has helped you. But let them choose how to solve the problem. Even if they ultimately do what you’ve recommended, they’ll actually learn how to problem-solve and improve their work. Your job is not to chastise people and make them feel like failures who don’t get it. If, after significant coaching, an employee cannot execute successfully, perhaps he or she just can’t do the job. But telling employees how to do the work won’t help them the next time.
Stop using phrases such as “You need to…,” which sets you up as an adversary. Instead, use phrases such as “I see where you’re going here and appreciate your reasoning, but I suggest that you consider something else here….” As a coach, you must be an advocate for your employees’ success, not an adversary working against them.
What if the consequences for failure are dire—as they often are? Convey exactly what the stakes are, then let your employees know you’re there to help. On occasion, I have had to convey such truths as this: “I need to let you know that both of our jobs are on this line with this project. I put it in your hands because I know you can deliver stellar results on this one. Of course, I know it’s going to be a challenge, so I’m here to help in whatever way you need. Please come to me for help if anything comes up or you feel even slightly off track. Let’s work together to make this a massive success.” Note that, in this example, I did not threaten the employee. I told her the truth. I also inspired her by saying, in essence: “This project is going to change the way the entire company thinks about User Experience. Your work will influence tens of thousands of employees, and most senior leaders in the company will know about it. Plus, you’ll design a product that makes life easier and more delightful for millions of users. I’m excited for you to have this exciting opportunity. Let’s create something that we’ll be proud of for the rest of our careers.”
Years later, this employee told me that she walked away “a little scared, but super stoked.” She worked long hours and weekends and enrolled everyone she could to help. I cleared the way politically for her to be able to deliver. Had I tried to prescribe the exact way in which to accomplish the project, she would have felt that I did not trust her. There is no way she would have worked all those extra hours or enrolled anyone else’s help because she would not have taken the high level of responsibility for the project that she did. She would have thought “Fine. I’ll just do what he wants.”
Here is a core principle for great leaders: People who trust you will move heaven and earth for you, including working long hours, pointing out your shortcomings to you, and generally having your back. Wouldn’t you rather have employees you have to remind to take time off—as their advocate—rather than your controlling the time they take off—as their adversary?
Resolving Poor Performance
Throughout my career, in very few cases have I needed to step in and prescribe the exact way in which an employee should do a job. In those cases, there were larger performance challenges that I needed to address.
However, just because employees have performance challenges, that does not mean their manager should become their adversary. In fact, when people are struggling, the certain way to ensure they fail is to make them feel as though their manager stands against them. So, if you recognize that you’re treating people with performance challenges as your adversaries, do both yourself and your employees a favor and get rid of them right away. Very seldom do employees turn around poor performance for bad managers, so why make both of you suffer?
Even if you need to deliver hard news to your employees, you can do it as their advocate. Set measurable, performance-based objectives; get your employees’ agreement, and work with them to help them achieve their goals. Even if they do not achieve their objectives, as a leader, you can still wish for their success, remind them that they did not deliver what they promised, and discuss their career options with them—which could include a performance-improvement plan, leaving the company, or moving to another role. When dealing with my employees’ performance issues, I let them know that I’m still pulling for them to succeed, but remind them that we’ve agreed on certain goals and can’t ignore them. As a manager, you can recognize people for trying and express appreciation, then continue to help them move forward.
Other factors that are unrelated to work may be affecting an employee’s performance. An employee who was experiencing challenges outside of work once sat me down to have a heart-to-heart about my lack of support. I had, in fact, started to performance-manage this employee, with the expectation that our work relationship would soon be at an end. But I realized that this heart-to-heart conversation should have happened earlier rather than my withdrawing my support. I came to believe that, with my help, this employee could turn things around and do great work for me.
The principle of advocacy applies in so many ways. For example, during design reviews, set the standard for constructive criticism by not cutting down people’s ideas. Instead, ask questions and point out challenges that the employee should perhaps consider. Almost invariably, people recognize their challenges and come back with better ideas. And, after receiving constructive feedback, they’ll be excited about moving forward instead of feeling the resentment that would have resulted from their receiving harsh criticism in public.
UX designers and researchers are uniquely purpose-driven creatures who live to design great products that meet users’ needs. They want the opportunity to do great work. As a UX leader, your goal is to be the liaison who helps your employees achieve their goals while meeting executives’ expectations of increased monetization.
When managers make employees feel under appreciated or even fearful, their employees become resentful at best and, at worst, oppose the manager’s objectives in favor of their own. Great leaders, on the other hand, make their employees feel excited and engaged in achieving great results—not only for themselves, but for the leader, the team of which they’re a part, and the organization for which they work. As a great leader, you create a virtuous cycle that uplifts all.