I just finished reading Inferno, by Dan Brown, and a line which is something like: Only one form of contagion travels faster than a virus - and that is fear. It got stuck in my head and caused me to think about how fear plays out in business. This definitely relates to the psychology of the individual investor and the stock market , which is alternatively driven by either greed or fear (“I’m missing out and I’ve got to get in” when it has gone up, or “I’ve got to get out,” when it has gone down.). But it also made me think about fear and intimidation as a management strategy. Does it work?

I believe it does work for getting short term desired results. When someone is afraid of getting yelled at or maybe even losing their job, they are going to do whatever’s required to meet the boss’s explicit expectations. But there are caveats: the effectiveness is short term and it’s about meeting expectations.

A big limitation is that while someone who is managed via intimidation will fearfully work to meet expectations, they will not likely exceed expectations, and will certainly not work to their full potential. Why would someone put in extra effort for a boss they don’t like or respect? They’ll do the minimum required to stay out of hot water, but that’s it. There’s an adage about getting optimal performance from people by capturing not only their heads, but also their hearts. If you appeal to your employees in a more respectful and encouraging way, they will be engaged and committed, and even feel motivated to surpass your expectations because their internal expectations will be even higher.

Intimidation also hampers creativity. Employees won’t take risks or try new things if they’re afraid. When you create a safe, encouraging work relationship where it’s ok to make mistakes, you’ll end up with employees that are more proactive, creative and innovative. That’s the real environment for improvement. The other caveat I mentioned is the short term nature of performance if someone is motivated by fear. Consider the difference between a sprint and a marathon. Sprinting takes more energy and is not sustainable over the long run, just like the stress of working in fear. And while some stress at work can be energizing and at times produce great results, one cannot work perpetually under stress – that just drains energy. You’ll also find it short term because that employee will most likely eventually seek out a healthier boss-employee relationship.

Fortunately I’ve only had one boss who managed with fear and intimidation. I did what he demanded of me and nothing more. I stayed out of trouble, but of all my work experiences it was the least effort I ever put in. It’s more work to manage in a positive, encouraging (yet accountable) way, but the individual and organizational results will be far superior. Plus, why be a jerk?