Respect born out of fear is not respect. It is an attempt at self preservation. 

Tribal leaders need and value respect and loyalty. Tribal followers need approval and recognition. Leaders that instill fear in others to gain their respect can never sleep well. They can never relax – or turn their backs – because mistrust is everywhere. Leaders who lead through fear will never hear the truth from their followers. They will only hear what people think they want to hear. In a culture of fear, there is no upside for followers to speak truth to power.

This is a dark picture. It suggests a sinister, perhaps criminal organization, or a third-world dictatorship. And it could be. But it also has a more benign face, that of a seemingly tame, civil, profitable, respected company. Even a Fortune 100. Like Wells Fargo Bank, or Volkswagen, for example.

Fear driven respect, in any organization, is counterproductive at best and toxic at worst. In the case of Wells Fargo Bank, it is widely known that the approximately 5,000 employees responsible for opening up bank and credit card accounts for customers without their knowledge or consent were under orders to meet their sales quotas or risk losing their jobs. What began as ambitious goals became “by any means necessary” requirements. They lost their jobs anyway when the scheme was discovered. They were frightened scapegoats. The fallout at senior leadership levels of the bank were catastrophic. Government intervention has put a limit on the bank’s ability to grow, until they get their house in order. Their current search for a new CEO has yielded a few potentially qualified prospects, and one big problem. None of the candidates wants the job. 

Wells Fargo was and remains a major, headline grabbing example. What about the thousands of smaller companies, non-profit organizations and government agencies where some form of fear underpins what pretends to be respect? 

What happens in agencies that permit and encourage hazing of new employees as a proud, cultural tradition? What happens to respect in companies when whistleblowers are bullied, marginalized, shamed and forced to leave? What happens to respect for new ideas when group-think that mirrors what people believe their boss wants to hear is the only thing that brainstorming produces? The list goes on.

What about your company? What does respect look and feel like? What kind of results does it produce – good or bad? Please share your views. Let’s start a conversation and see where it goes. There’s a wealth of great ideas to be mined here. Be part of it.              

By Bill Leider, Managing Partner, Axíes Group


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