Have you ever wondered why fear-based management styles exist in sales?

In her book The Fearless Organization, Amy Edmundson traces the origin of fear-based management back to the early 1900s.

This was the golden era for the automobile and manufacturing industry, in which the authoritative manager was born. This is the type of manager who would use fear and intimidation to motivate employees working on an assembly line.

According to Amy’s research, when managers at Ford used a fear-based management style and combined it with process improvements – the company experienced a massive boost in performance.

Production time for a car dropped from 12 hours to 3 hours and led to a massive spike in revenue for years to come.

When other automakers caught wind of these results, an industry “best practice” was formed.

Much like how we look to companies like Google and Apple for culture/leadership best practices today; industries around the world looked to the car manufacturing juggernauts of the early 1900s for best practices on how to drive higher performance.

Thus, fear-based management and and a belief that it is the “best way to generate results” made its way into every industry around the world. A belief in a management style that many managers still hold today; but is no longer relevant and crippling high performance.

Why does fear-based management no longer work?

​The manufacturing industry exploded during the early 1900s with the creation of the assembly line. Working on an assembly line meant workers had to complete thousands of repetitive tasks each day; many of which required very little thought.

Research during and since this time has confirmed that fear and intimidation DO in fact work in these types of environments. They motivate workers to complete mindless repetitive tasks at a faster rate, while still maintaining a high quality of work.

Though ethically problematic, performance does get “optimized” to a certain extent.

Managers using a fear based management style in today’s environment stumble, because tasks are no longer mindless. Making 50 sales calls or sending 30 emails in a day is certainly repetitive, but hardly mindless.

In a digitally connected world with distracted, stressed and burnt out buyers – creative messaging and empathetic sellers are king.

Each email, presentation or phone call requires extremely high levels of focus, creativity and empathy to execute and experience success. When problems do arise – salespeople need to be able to learn from failure and adapt their execution going forward.

The environment in which salespeople work has become more variable, uncertain, complex and ambiguous.

This means today’s environment is completely different from the highly predictable environment of working on an assembly line during the early 1900s. If managers want their salespeople to operate with high degrees of creativity and empathy each day; they need to stop trying to motivate their team through fear and intimidation.

Nearly every single piece of research in the last 30 years has proven that fear and intimidation make people less creative, less empathetic and leads to significantly more mistakes while working on complex tasks.

The total opposite of optimal performance and making a sale is a very complex task.

To be successful in today’s sales environment, managers need to build supportive sales cultures that are rich in psychological safety.

psychological safety and fear-based management

When psychological safety is created, salespeople get to spend each day exploring, learning, being creative, taking smart risks and helping others.

It’s these types of behaviors, when executed across an organization – that lead to a high performing sales teams. Sales teams that become adaptable and resilient to a rapidly changing economy.

But – What do you think? Do you think it’s time to retire fear-based management in sales?

To view our Mental Health, Resilience and Stress-Management programs for salespeople, click the link below.

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About The Author

mental health advocate Jeff Riseley

Jeff Riseley is currently the Founder of the Sales Health Alliance and Mental Health Advocate. With over a decade of sales experience – Jeff understands the importance of Mental Health in achieving peak sales performance.

Jeff combines his sales and Mental Health expertise to improve sales performance through mental health best practices. His strategies have helped sales teams become more motivated, resilient and better equipped to tackle stressful events within sales.


1 Comment

  1. It think this is mainstream advice. Pushing people to exceed in their job with negative actions, pitting associates against one another, yelling, belittling, berating, talking behind someone’s back, embarrassing, unfairly demoting, undermining… it never belongs in a healthy business environment.

    When Mullally was heading Ford Motor company, he implemented a core value of stating there would be no meanness. He stuck to it, adamantly. Surprisingly one of his top leaders actually said he would resign when reported yelling at a subordinate. His reasoning, he couldn’t change years of an old habit. Sad but honest.

    As records show, Mullaly’s records brought Ford company from almost ruin to formidable competitor but implementing transparency and enforcing show of kindness.

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