When I worked in customer service call centers, a job I did for ten years of my professional life, the fear was so pervasive you could almost smell it. Average Call Handling time (ACH) and After Call Work (ACW) were tracked to the second, and both were expected to be reduced. I achieved an ACH of 163 seconds one month; I was congratulated for it. Later I was disciplined for taking “excessive” bathroom breaks; my team lead suggested I drink less water while at work. I was told once upon calling in sick that I was developing a “pattern” of absences; I offered to come in with pinkeye.

I did routinely work sick. I had a friend drive me to work one day when I had a 103 degree fever and was too dizzy to drive.

Everyone worked sick.

I had several coworkers out for weeks at a time on psych leave. Management didn’t call it that, but we knew when it happened. Some never came back.

We all worked under constant threat of being fired. After all, front line employees were easy to replace, especially in a city like Bellingham. We watched people clean out their desks. We watched people escorted out by security. We knew our files were full of every disciplinary action ever taken against us, and we knew that they could be combined at any time to create a “pattern” that would lead to us losing our jobs.

It wasn’t until two years into my next job that I started to recover from this.

My next position was in the mailroom for a government office. Every time my supervisor wanted to talk to me, I broke out in a sweat. But the real problem came when mistakes cropped up in my work. I would do anything to hide them. I would make excuses when I couldn’t hide them. This sometimes prevented me from ever fixing those mistakes.

One day, my supervisor told me, “I don’t want to hear it. Just fix it.”

This may sound brusque, but it changed the way I approach my work. It was a revelation. I saw that my mistakes wouldn’t be punished, but that it was my responsibility to fix them. I suddenly understood that I was not in immediate danger of being fired. If I acknowledged and fixed my mistakes, it was not a big deal.

This changed my entire approach to the job. I plunged into my work, asked for sidework, learned tasks from other parts of the department so that I could fill in where I was needed. I eventually trained my replacement in not just my job, but in all of these side projects and tasks, so that I could leave the place in good hands and not waste my supervisor’s time. I was more confident, more professional, more productive, and more collaborative. By the time I left, my supervisor told me that I was the most competent person to have held the position.

Physiological and Cognitive Impacts of Fear

Fear has inescapable effects on the human body. The release of adrenaline and cortisol occur; the heart rate quickens, digestion slows. Blood sugar increases to provide us the energy we need to escape the source of our fear. We become hyperalert to the source of our fear, unable to properly focus on routine tasks.

The fear response is self-limiting. Once the source of the fear is gone, the levels of adrenaline and cortisol return to normal.

But when fear is chronic, when we spend most of our waking hours under the pall of fear, the stress response becomes chronic. Sleep is disrupted, the immune system no longer functions normally. We can experience headaches and digestive maladies. Memory and concentration are both impaired. We experience a greater risk of heart disease in the long term.

Does this sound like a productive employee? Someone who’s ill frequently, who cannot concentrate on their work, whose cognition is to one degree or another impaired? Who is focused, despite any desire to the contrary, on the avoidance of and protection from the source of their fear?

Fear, Trust, and Motivation

Fear can be a motivating factor, but it comes with great risks. It reduces confidence, inhibits collaboration, and stifles creative and innovative thinking. It prevents employees from taking the initiative, and reduces employee engagement.

Fear is an extrinsic motivator, and not a very effective one. Positive extrinsic motivators work better, for all of the reasons described above, but even extrinsic motivators vary from worker to worker; the rewards that motivate one employee may not motivate another. One-size-fits-all reward packages as designed by management may not be as effective as they hope, and can reach a point of diminishing returns as regards motivation. The task of properly employing extrinsic motivation has been described by psychologist Victor Vroom in his Expectancy Theory.

Expectancy Theory states that three factors are required to effectively motivate someone to engage in a behavior: expectancy, instrumentality, and valence. Expectancy is the belief that an increase in effort will result in an increase in performance. Instrumentality is the belief that the increase in performance will be noticed and rewarded. Valence is whether a reward is desired by the employee or not. 

All three of these factors are important. In management through fear, the reward on offer is that the negative outcome will be avoided. While this outcome may have the proper valence to the employee, without the belief that the performance will be noticed and rewarded (instrumentality), the motivating effect of that valent reward fails. Maintaining instrumentality requires that you have the trust of your employees, and fear poisons trust.

Intrinsic motivation is more reliable, but cannot be created; it can only be accessed and leveraged. It is more difficult to access because you have to know the person in order to know what motivates them, and building relationships takes time and work. And trust.

People ruled by fear do not confide their hopes and dreams and joys to the source of their fear. It’s important to know these things to access and leverage intrinsic motivation. To know these things, there must be some kind of intimacy present in the worker-manager relationship, and that intimacy is impossible without trust. Fear strangles that trust in its crib.

The process of leveraging intrinsic motivation is described by the Job Characteristics Model. This model states that intrinsic motivation at a job depends on three factors: skill variety, task identity, and task significance. This is moderated by two additional factors, autonomy and feedback, which increase or decrease the effect of the three primary factors. 

What’s interesting about the Job Characteristics Model is that all factors focus on the work itself. There is no reward or punishment here. Autonomy, the degree to which an employee can determine what they’ll work on and how they’ll work on it, requires trust from management that the employee will do the work at hand without being controlled by reward or fear. This trust must be mutual; management that is not trusted by its employees cannot trust those employees. Conversely, if employees are not trusted by their management, they cannot trust their management.

The Greasy Thumbprint of Frederick Taylor

Frederick Taylor’s Scientific Management is responsible for many of the toxic management tactics that persist in our management culture more than a hundred years later. While it is true that we largely no longer practice scientific management to the letter, and while it is true that we’ve moved beyond the kind of manual labor that Taylor was attempting to optimize, several aspects of his theory persist today.

The highly stratified management system, for example, that places managers above and away from the work they’re managing. The treatment of human employees as machines that can be tuned for greatest productivity and efficiency. The related idea that human capital is as disposable as physical capital. The fine-grained control over even the smallest tasks performed by the worker (micromanagement, in today’s parlance) and its attendant complete lack of employee autonomy. All of these things contribute to management by fear, and in today’s workplace actually reduce productivity and stifle innovation.

Because of this, there is a natural and severe power imbalance between the employer and the employed, and due largely to the widespread use of the principles of scientific management, employers have not been good stewards of this power. This has damaged the trust relationship, which leads employers to exercise more command and control tactics, which further damages trust, in a vicious cycle. Effective management, especially in the new economy, requires that we discard command and control management practices, and foster a culture of mutual trust in the workplace.

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