Many business leaders inadvertently create a culture of fear at work

A new poll of workplace leaders suggests there is an environment of unconscious fear in modern-day leadership, leading to toxic culture, stunted growth, performance and productivity, and decision inertia. The global study of 2,500 emerging leaders in corporate businesses by consultant Margot Faraci, claims that around one quarter (23 percent) of UK leaders are unconsciously creating an environment of fear with direct reports. Globally, this figure rises to one in three (30 percent), indicating a growing worldwide phenomenon of fearful leadership. Fearful leadership carries significant implications for team morale, performance, and overall well-being within organisations. It’s often attributed to past experiences, creating an ongoing cycle of leadership driven by fear.

As a result, fearful leadership, whether conscious or unconscious, is costing UK businesses, and the wider UK economy, a £2.2 billion drop in productivity and performance. Fearful leadership is also creating a culture of mistrust, as while fearful leaders are confident in themselves, half (48 percent) do not trust their direct reports to handle situations as they arise.

Fear-based leaders are defined as those that either always or often experience anxiety, micromanagement, imposter syndrome, anger, unwillingness to receive feedback, hesitancy to speak up, complacency and quiet quitting. These leaders lose 10 hours a week in productivity for their companies, equivalent to £9,545 a year per leader, or £2.2 billion annually.

To uncover unconscious fear in leadership, the study delved into leaders’ behaviours and experiences. The results are alarming:

  • Nine in 10 (88 percent) are consistently fearful of being wrong or making mistakes
  • A further 82 percent consistently feel high pressure to demonstrate value
  • Two in three (67 percent) are hesitant to speak up with their own point of view
  • Nearly half (45 percent) are unwilling to give feedback to their direct reports or managers
  • One third (33 percent) regularly deliver or experience micromanagement
  • Well over a tenth (15 percent) regularly experience anxiety or nerves surrounding work
  • One in 20 (9 percent) regularly experience anger or frustration

Margot Faraci comments “This reflects what I’ve seen and experienced for decades in leadership: our fear of failure, our fear of being wrong or being outdone has devastating consequences for us personally and for our business performance.  Fear shows up in various ways in leadership: being aggressive, avoiding difficult conversations, undermining others or staying small to be safe. All of these behaviors are damaging to the system and ourselves.”

Fearful leadership is often rooted in inexperience and a lack of self-confidence, leading to increased stress, fatigue, and impaired decision-making. The consequences of fearful leadership on team morale, well-being, performance, and productivity are clear:

  • One third (33 percent) of fearful leaders state they regularly witness declines in employee and team performance
  • Two in five (38 percent) fearful leaders acknowledge there is a decrease in team morale
  • One in five (21 percent) suffer from strained relationships within their teams
  • A further fifth (21 percent) also say their ability to be creative is hindered.

Faraci adds: “Fear is not the way to lead for performance and engagement.  Fear makes leaders work harder than they would otherwise need to, and it has the same effect on everyone around them. Coming to work and performing sustainably is almost impossible in a fearful system.

“Fearful Leaders often overcompensate by seeking to over-index compassion and sensitivity, thinking that will increase productivity. But, they don’t actually demonstrate compassionate or sensitive behaviours, instead ramping up either micromanagement, or hands-off management.

“To break this cycle requires self-awareness that defaulting to micromanagement and hands-off management squashes compassion and loses the benefits that true compassion can deliver. My question to fearful leaders is: do you love yourself enough to acknowledge your own fear and deal with it?”


Causes of fearful leadership

The study further reveals that over a third (36 percent) of fearful leaders attribute their behaviour to a lack of communication in the workplace, while 33 percent point to a lack of experience, and nearly half (45 percent) blame existing work culture. Worryingly, a quarter (23 percent) of fearful leaders admit to fearing displeasing their teams or higher-ups, with 25 percent feeling they are not key decision-makers and over one in 10 (12 percent) expressing a sense of hopelessness.

Fear-based leaders often draw from past experiences with poor managers to justify their actions, creating an ongoing cycle of fear within business leadership. Many of these emerging leaders have struggled to navigate their own experiences with largely hands-off and unavailable managers:

  • Half (45 percent) experienced micromanagement from their own managers
  • Three in four (77 percent) respondents say they feel a lack of trust from their leaders
  • Two thirds (67 percent) have a hesitancy to speak up in difficult situations
  • Three in five (59 percent) feel unhappy in their job
  • Over half (58 percent) of also feel resentment towards work

While UK fearful leaders attribute their behaviour to past negative experiences, the study found US leaders often leverage fear as a means to drive results.