Love or Fear the Boss

Fear vs Love

Should you love or fear the boss?

In a Harvard Business Review article entitled Love and Fear and the Modern Boss, Scott Snook writes:

Five hundred years ago, Niccolò Machiavelli posed the question of whether it is better for a leader to be loved or feared, concluding that if you can’t be both (and few people can), being feared is more effective.

Snook’s basic thesis is fear was the dominant management model until a generation ago but that today’s information economy requires leaders to show a softer side. He claims the strict rules and productivity metrics typically associated with fear-based leadership might work for factory assembly lines and risk-averse nuclear power plants but are not appropriate for knowledge workers who interact with customers or for creative fields like advertising. Although Snook doesn’t say it explicitly, he seems to be supporting Deming’s recommendation to eliminate management by objectives.

In both cases, the challenge with strict rules and productivity measures is they tend to measure outputs of activities instead of outcomes which deliver impact. Contact centers often miss this difference and choose metrics like ‘average length of call.’ Unfortunately, length of call tends to have a negative correlation to customer satisfaction. Customers care more about how long they have to wait to get their question answered and whether they get the right answers the first time, than they do about length of the call.

To me, the choice of leadership style is less about whether employees love or fear the boss and more about when to institute tight controls and when to have looser ones. When I teach my class on cascading strategy, I claim there are valid reasons to use multiple approaches: identical, shared, contributory, or unique. These four approaches occupy a spectrum of tighter to looser controls.

My own management style is probably somewhere in the middle of this spectrum with an emphasis on a few looser controls. As a result, I tend to choose more contributory and unique cascades. However, in times of crisis, I find myself switching to identical and shared objectives. In each case, I’m sending a signal as to what the highest priorities are at that moment in time.

The most important role of a leader is to ensure the organization is aligned on priorities. Perhaps this is the performance management reinterpretation of the old saying: love me or fear me but just don’t ignore me.

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7 Responses to Love or Fear the Boss

  1. jaiz February 17, 2008 at 9:54 pm #

    Interesting , but I think it is not like … love or fear … it is only love .. i.e Unconditional Love (80%) and Conditional Love ( 20%) , where conditional love can be equivalent to the yester-year fear-based -strategies..just… ensure some accountability….

    I see it like this because today information is by-far freely available to anyone and everyone….. So being a leader demands visioneering where the team needs to be ushered with love , where team have only information and not the clear direction …. as to how to apply to reach the common goal. If fear is applied then team members opt quickly towards their personal goals.

  2. Kellie February 19, 2008 at 8:15 pm #

    interesting about your class . . . maybe you cover this in it. but, i can’t see how we can or even should generalize best leadership style. generally, i think its like sales; you either have this ability or you don’t. i say this not that people can not be trained but i don’t think you can train someone to be a salesperson or a leader. you can train people to be better at a natural skill. in some cases and industries love and hate could work equally well.

    but to your point about metrics perhaps we’ve gone too far in measuring these kinds of things. how can you measure impact? its definitely not easy and no one way that works for everyone. sounds like that is the topic of cascading objectives? how do we sign up for the class???

    • Jonathan Becher February 21, 2008 at 9:07 pm #

      Kellie, in this class I don’t try to teach leadership or even recommend a particular style. Rather, I try to answer the question: “How do I better align everyone (employees, partners, etc) so that they are working towards a common outcome?” You choose a style to cause this to happen and I suggest some strategy techniques that will reinforce it.

      As for measuring impact, I teach a separate class on the difference between output measures that monitor activities vs outcome KPIs that measure impact. I’ve given class through ALI and PI, in the past, and I’m thinking about doing it at work as well.

  3. Chris June 3, 2008 at 10:54 am #

    While leadership is often thought of a vague subject, it’s really a lifelong journey of self-improvement in the area of leading teams to achieving your goals. we can all improve our leadership through the study of the principles and some self-awareness and the willingness to apply these ideas in our teams.

    Adopting the right leadership is a skill we need to develop and then choose to deploy the best style for our team’s situation.


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