Managing by fear is widely recognized as an outdated concept that does more harm than good. According to Organizational Anthropologist Judith Glazer, recent advances in neuroscience show it to be quite damaging. Glazer says in order to be a manager who inspires their team, one needs to understand how the brain reacts to fear verses how it reacts to praise.

Whenever a person is triggered by fear, Cortisol floods the brain, which leads to a heightened need for self-protection. We lose our ability to think rationally, and to be empathetic and cooperative. The search for comfort and consolation ensues as the need to think or talk through bad feelings surfaces. We seek out co-workers, peers or friends outside the office who will listen and justify our feelings, which hampers their productivity as well as our own.

The effects of this cortisol bath can last up to 26 hours. Anyone repeatedly exposed to a punitive management style can experience a prolonged state of fear that may have long-term repercussions on their ability to perform.

Glazer suggests that the more effective approach to getting people to perform better is to unlock the brain’s dopamine state through appropriate, well-deserved, sincere praise and support. This, she says, will open up new pathways for employees to access new skills and talent.

Praise triggers neurotransmitters that release specific chemicals that generate confidence and self-composure. These chemicals also give individuals the ability to sustain working on projects — even under stress. Their increased intention and attention keeps them engaged to the end.

There was a time when managing by fear was perfectly acceptable. Today, if you’re an employer, or an employee, science shows just what happens under the surface when we interact with one another. The science of fear is hard to refute if you’ve ever experienced a mental block caused by anxiety or stress.

I’d like to add that understanding the impact of managing by fear not just about recommending that bosses be kinder, it’s also a wakeup call for employees to find ways to cope with fear in the moment, reduce stress-related physiological damage, and learn to advocate for anyone – even yourself – who is being subjected to this lose-lose management style.


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