Why Fear Doesn’t Create Accountability – Laurie Cure on Leadership

Many leaders believe that to create accountability among employees, those employees must fear the outcome if they don’t do what they’re told. That may mean everything from being yelled at to getting fired for not meeting goals.

But does that kind of management really work? In a new book, “Leading Without Fear,” author Laurie Cure argues that a culture of fear can be debilitating to the employee, the leader and the company. In a recent interview with Anita Bruzzese, she said it’s time we started to consider our workplace fears, and how those fears may impact how we lead.

AB: What is the impact on an organization when employees are afraid of the leader?

LK: Fear takes on a life of its own in an organization. People generally respond to fear in one of two ways; the typical flight or fight response. For the leader, the more indirect implications might be communication breakdowns, lack of motivation, blind obedience, or passive aggressive types of behavior from their employees. The more significant implementations can be impact to department or organizational outcomes; including financial targets, customer satisfaction or quality metrics. Ultimately, in environments of fear, people are not able to perform effectively. Leaders might also see low employee satisfaction scores and increase complaints to human resources or compliance venues.

AB: Can you give a couple of examples of what a leader might do to make employees fear him or her?

LK: At its core, fear is about threat. In my book, I discuss the language of fear which reflects not only language, but behaviors that induce fear. What I also stress is that these behaviors usually must be frequent and repeated to be fear-inducing.

Some common ways leaders subtly introduce fear is through belittling comments, sarcasm or threats of job loss. They might think they are joking as a way to motivate people, but it actually has the opposite effect. Another common behavior I observe is when they create “in group” and “out group.” They will include certain people in important information and not others, or some get invited to participate and others do not.

AB: What are a few things that leaders can do to alleviate this fear?

LK: One of the greatest strategies a leader can use to reduce fear is to give people real or perceived control over their situation. This might mean involving them in changes or decisions that impact their work or ensuring that communication is as transparent as possible.

Secondly, we must provide high levels of support when people are in environments of fear.

A final strategy is to avoid the language of fear. Be aware of how your behavior as a leader is being perceived by others. Are you intimidating? Do you ridicule others? Are you making ethical decisions? When we consistently avoid behaviors that drive threat, we naturally reduce fear.

AB: When eliminating this fear, how can leaders still create accountability?

LK: First, we must set clear expectations. When employees know what they are responsible for and how they are expected to perform, we reduce the uncertainty and hence the fear. At this stage, we must also provide feedback. Because when we withhold feedback, we elevate uncertainty. People fill in the gaps and write their own story.

Second, we have to achieve mutual commitment. People have to be positively motivated to do the work. This requires discussion about why we need to engage in certain tasks/projects. This also requires that we link the “why” to something that is meaningful to people. When we ask employees to just do their job or they will lose it, fear is the result.

Finally, we have to hold people responsible for the commitments they make in the workplace. This means we offer positive feedback when people are on track and we have compassionate crucial conversations when they are not.

AB: In the book you also address that leaders can also experience fear. What do they have to be afraid of?

LK: Leaders are also employees and their role is magnified in the organization. They will all have the same fears about job loss, security, belonging and being successful, often to a larger degree. They manage higher levels of risk both within and outside the organization. They are stepping out on a ledge often in support of their teams/organization and these increased risks elevate fear.

AB: How do their fears show up in their performance?

LK: Fear-based leaders often have a great deal of their own fears – many are using denial as a coping mechanism.  Without the ability or self-awareness to manage their own fear, they will often “pass it down” the line to employees. They might not know how else to do it.

AB: How can they overcome their fears?

LK: Leaders use the same strategies as employees to overcome fear. They must be self-aware, assess their unconscious goals around their behavior and determine what support and control they need to obtain over their situation.

AB: Is being afraid always a bad thing?

LK: Not at all. Fear is an excellent signal, but it cannot be a way of life. What we want to avoid is using fear as a motivator. Some leaders believe that a little fear actually keeps everyone on their toes. I maintain the belief that creating safe, open work environments is a better way to ensure innovation, creativity and productivity. Organizations that do this have stronger results.

AB: What is a fear you are facing today and how are you overcoming it?

LK: As an entrepreneur, my fears are similar to others. I continue to challenge myself about how to stay on the edge. What do I need to continue my growth and can I do that in way that serves my customers? Part of my job is growing people and in order to that, I need to ensure that I am strong, confident and living my purpose. Our fears never abandon us. Our job is to hear them, listen to them, and act from those messages.

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  • AA-Sampang Riyard

    I disagree….I use the fear of disappointment and fear of failure as a major motivator. I have real expectations for my subordinates and they know that if they don’t work to meet those expectations they are not going to be relied upon in the future and they will eventually lose their position on the best team in our organization; they can go be complacent on someone else’s team. I don’t want people to work for me that don’t have an internal fear of failure, that won’t work hard to exceed standards, that won’t go out of their way to support the team in achieving our mission…and I don’t want anyone who is complacent or ignorant enough not to be afraid of failure…if they aren’t afraid of failing, then our goals aren’t challenging enough or they don’t have an understanding of the situation or the mission requirements…I don’t take missions that are 100%. It’s my job to create the environment and give them the tools to avoid failures, and it is my job to support them when they have an honest failure.

    • Laurie Cure

      Happy Thanksgiving. I want to offer a couple of thoughts (and I will try
      not to write another book). I think our perspectives are actually in alignment.
      First, I would like to genuinely acknowledge and applaud your leadership. It
      sounds as if you have built a team of high performance, which is not easy to
      do. What I notice in your post, more than fear, is your ability to motivate
      your team through the establishment of “real expectations”, challenging work
      (as demonstrated in your statement about “exceed standards”), and strong levels of support. I also appreciated your statement, “it is my job to create the
      environment and give them the tools to avoid failures, and. . . to support them
      when have an honest failure”. As I consider those statements, what I actually
      see is a leader who moves their people through fear and helps them get to the
      other side of fear so they can perform.

      There are several items worthy of consideration. First, is that fear, along
      with all emotion, operates along a continuum. More extreme levels of fear are driven by threat, uncertainty and a sense that one has little control over their circumstances. In these situations, I will argue (and research will support) that fear decreases motivation, performance, creativity and drive. It paralyzes us and we can’t function to our fullest potential. If we believe this, then what leaders can do in teams and organizations is to shift these three variables. To move people from fear, we must decrease the threat level. We do this is 2 primary ways.

      1. Provide employees with more certainty around the situation they are in. The best way to do this (as I discuss in my book), is to establish clear expectations. This appears to be exactly what you actually do with your team to get them to perform to higher levels. Accountability and excellence are derived from the establishment of high expectations.

      2. Allow employees more control over their circumstances or situation.
      The more individual control leaders provide their teams, the less fear they
      experience. As a side note, this is also critically important for accountability.

      While this argument might seem to be a matter of semantics, it is an
      important distinction. As we shift these variables, we actually move into a
      different emotional experience along the continuum. What I see you doing in
      your leadership is not leading with fear, but rather offering challenge. You
      have provided enough support and clarity in expectations that you reduce the
      uncertainty thereby moving your team from fear to challenge. Employees can
      function and actually thrive in environments where they are challenged. They
      cannot perform effectively in environments of fear.

      The last item I want to comment on is your statement about fear of failure.
      This is a common fear. In my research and with those I work with (including
      myself), when there is a deep seeded fear of failure, they become stuck and
      paralyzed. People will stay in positions that they have outgrown instead of
      pursuing new roles, they will only perform to requirements instead of going
      above and beyond and their level of innovative thinking decreases.

      In my mind, there is a big difference between leading with fear and
      motivating employees through high expectations and natural consequences (i. e., your point that they are not relied upon in the future). What I
      might propose, is that rather than encouraging a fear of failure, you are
      actually practicing strong leadership by establishing solid, high expectations (the first step in my accountability model), creating environments of support and offering the resources people need to be successful. When I consult with
      clients, I am seeking the exact outcomes you state: excellence, challenge,
      motivation, and courage. However, when individuals are in a state of fear, they cannot come forward with these skills. They must actually release the fear in
      order to step into a greater space.

      I would love to continue the discussion of you have additional thoughts.

  • Anita Bruzzese

    I think what is being emphasized by Laurie Cure is that it’s much better to offer positive feedback and coaching than it is to instill fear in people, because you end up focusing them on fear and not results. She advocates that you can hold people accountable for their actions and their performance, but your focus on fear as a motivator always backfires in the end. Something you might want to consider….

  • mike kewl

    “FEAR is the mind killer”…go ahead and use ‘fear’ to manage people, it will kill the very essense of what once made the organizatin successful!!!

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