Respect vs. fear - which leadership gets the best

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As a small business owner, getting the best and most consistent performance from your employees is a priority. The question is which tactic is more effective – a leadership style grounded in mutual respect, or one characterized by fear and intimidation? In order to be respected by your employees, you can focus on two elements: Interpersonal relations, and company policies and standards.

  • Interpersonal relations include how approachable and accessible you are to employees at all levels within the organization, whether there is tolerance for employees who voice divergent opinions (including criticism or discontent), how transparent you are about the state of the business and your future plans, and the extent to which you include employees in decision-making.
  • Company policies and standards create predictability and protocols around issues such as remuneration, leave days, internal and external communications, and health and safety.

Fear-based leadership, on the other hand, relies on authoritarian decision-making and communication. What the ‘boss’ (i.e. small business owner) says goes and dissenters are not tolerated. Employees are encouraged to be subservient and ‘know their place,’ and face dire consequences for failing to toe the line (e.g. public ridicule or humiliation). Company policies and standards can also exist in this environment and can be applied fairly. However, the methods through which they are developed are likely to be top-down rather than consultative.

The one leadership style is not necessarily better than the other.

For instance, fear-based leadership may be better for creating and maintaining discipline and enforcing decisions which may be unpopular but crucial for the business.

Respect-based leadership may be better for holding onto talent and reducing staff turnover by creating an empowering environment for employees. Employees can perform well under both regimes and make valuable contributions to the business, driven by strong though different incentives. Small business owners should apply their minds and make their own decisions about which approach they prefer.

Prejudices and misconceptions will no doubt play a role - for some, fear-based leadership is associated with strength and control, while respect-based leadership is seen as weak and indecisive. Some small business owners may be able to find creative ways to strike a balance between the two, recognizing the value of both, whilst others may find that they rely more on one than the other as the business and they themselves evolve and mature.

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