The only fear-based management style that works

It’s not about being a scary boss, or over-thinking IT risk. Instead, technology leaders need to change their mindset

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fear-based management

We all know about scary bosses, who use intimidation and pressure to get everyone working harder and faster. Don’t work for those people, if possible. While potentially effective in the short-term, you don’t come across too many people who tout that kind of fear-based management at business conferences.

The problem is, it’s not the only kind of fear-based management that exists. Last week I was talking to the IT director of a company based in Vancouver, and I was asking him about the biggest challenges he finds he and his peers face in getting more innovative work done. His answer sounded very familiar.

“I think there’s still a lot of management based on fear,” he said, referring more specifically to IT management. “There are still a lot of people who believe things like, ‘Nobody ever got fired for using product X.’” The fear of failure, particularly when it’s a question of whether or not to deploy something relatively new like unified communications-as-a-service (UCaaS), SIP trunking or even business VoIP, can be enough to shut entire conversations down. He believed the difference between highly effective CIOs and the rest is their willingness to put in the time to think through the risks and overcome them to produce business value.

Of course, that kind of confidence isn’t always easy to come by. Which brings us to the third form of fear-based management, which some might equate to a cheap marketing ploy because it’s been used by vendors so many times. This is the “if you don’t use this technology, you’ll be left behind by the rest of the market.” I’ve seen this used to try and sell everything from client/server products to big data analytics software. It always feels ham-fisted and amateurish to me when companies try to make their customers worried about losing business if they don’t make a purchase from their business. The only time that sort of fear works, I think, is when it comes from within.

When you’re running a race, for example, that feeling that someone’s coming up fast behind you can instill a healthy sort of fear that drives you to kick things up a notch. It’s not a fear that debilitates but one that drives a competitive approach to overcoming an adversary. Given our relative wealth, health and safety, this may be a fear Canadian firms lack. Last month, for example, the World Economic Forum released its annual ranking of competitiveness by country, and Canada’s position fell one spot, to a middling 15. This was the takeaway as described in the Globe and Mail:

Canada’s slipping competitive status highlights some of economists’ biggest long-term concerns about the Canadian economy: Underinvestment in innovation and technology that continues to hamper the country’s chronically sluggish productivity growth.

I’m not suggesting everyone panic and adopt every IT trend that emerges, but I will say that the most successful CIOs I meet seem to internalize a fear that failing to get ahead of certain issues — increased demand for compute resources, a move to mobility, better use of data — will negatively affect their organizations. This is the kind of fear-based management to cultivate. Figure out the opportunities your firm may be overlooking, and then be afraid. Be very afraid.
photo credit: Daryl Sim via photopin cc

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