Just how might the front-line employee fall victim to fear at the workplace? In the 1992 classic movie Glengarry Glen Ross, Alec Baldwin masterfully portrays the character Blake, who motivates a small real estate sales staff through fear and intimidation. The results of Blake’s sales contest, where salesmen placing below second place get fired, are tragic. Indeed, failure is guaranteed and engineered into the process. The characters endure humiliation, desperation, deceit, theft, and scandal as they grasp at dignity and struggle to salvage their jobs, by any means necessary.
Workplace fear and intimidation might not play out as dramatically as it did in Glengarry Glen Ross. Nevertheless, it is real and equally menacing. The weapons of fear include threats, harassment, exclusion, and unattainable goals. The fearful employee worries that he will lose his job, be demoted, be denied salary increases, be assigned menial tasks, or otherwise be constructively dismissed. Working in a constant backdrop of a fearful environment, the employee may become withdrawn, vengeful, depressed, abusive, or even violent.
Quality Management guru, the late Dr. W. Edwards Deming, included “Drive Out Fear” as one of his famous “Fourteen Points” for achieving total quality in business. Deming was concerned mostly about the kind of fear that prevents the average worker from finding out how to do the job correctly. He worried about the fear that prevents employees from asking questions, from rocking the boat, from suggesting new ideas, and from challenging the status quo. "Fear takes a horrible toll,” said Dr. Deming. “Fear is all around, robbing people of their pride, hurting them, and denying them a chance to contribute to the company."
In the 1960’s, Douglas McGregor of MIT’s Sloan School of Management developed what came to be known as “Theory X” of organizational behaviour. The Theory X manager has little respect for employees. He considers them to be lazy, work-averse, and motivated only by self-interest. He feels threatened by the employee who asks too many questions. As such, the Theory X manager institutes a system of close supervision and tight controls, bolstered by a culture of blame. Within this punitive environment, employees learn to mistrust management. They keep quiet. Such a tyrannical manager may be successful in the short term, but fails dismally in the long haul, leaving behind him a trail of destruction and shattered lives. McGregor found that this approach is a major cause of diseconomies of scale in large businesses, and proved it to be counter-effective.
Valuable employees may simply leave the toxic workplace. This is terribly costly to any enterprise. Human Resources expert Susan M. Heathfield of Michigan State University offers advice in her “Top Ten Ways to Retain Your Great Employees”. Gathering data from exit interviews, Heathfield proposes antidotes. She has concludes that in order to retain great employees, firms should:
- Ensure employees know clearly what is expected of them every day.
- Provide high quality of supervision.
- Ensure that employees feel that they may speak their minds freely within the organization, without fear of recrimination.
- Utilize employees’ talents and skills.
- Promote fairness and equitable treatment.
- Provide opportunities for staff to grow in career, knowledge, and skill
- Never allow employees to feel anonymous or alone.
- Never threaten a person’s job or income.
- Encourage reward, recognition, and appreciation.
The enlightened manager encourages participation and input. She fosters an environment of learning and interaction. She is self-confident, but not narcissistic. She puts the welfare of the company ahead of her personal aspirations. She is a team leader. She treats her staff’s opinions with respect. She entrenches processes that allow suggestions for continuous improvement initiative. She knows how to answer questions about methods and procedures, or knows how to get the answers. She takes great joy in seeing her employees grow, get promoted, and get raises in pay. She builds enduring teams of people who love their work. She will succeed.