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Why Some Bosses Manage by Fear, and What You Can Do

I decided to write this article based on a question I recently received, “Why does my boss manage by fear? It gives me anxiety and then I make mistakes. It’s a scary cycle.”

If you’ve experienced either side of this, read on:


This is not one of the many articles on toxic leadership. It is not about those who are truly toxic bullies and narcissistic leaders. These are the leaders who, according to Tavanti (2011), have truly destructive behaviors and selfish outcomes, with poisonous effects leaving subordinates worse off than when they began.

This article is about identifying those who manage by fear because either they (1) do not have the skills to lead, or (2) are being managed by fear from the toxic leader they report to. These are the bosses that, with a little healthy courage and conversation on your part, can stop managing you by fear and allow you to be at your best


We are naturally social beings and communicators, but we are not naturally effective communicators. Few managers have received purposeful and intentional development opportunities (i.e. coaching and training) to acquire the skills and mindset necessary to effectively lead conversations with others. In fact, few managers are promoted to a management position based on their ability to lead.

Instead, many managers are promoted based on task performance and a technical skillset. This has led them to hold firmly to a certain way of performing tasks and getting things done.

This is why so many managers manage tasks, instead of managing people. However,

Few people start a new position saying, “I can't wait to be told how to do my job,

lose my sense of identity, and lose confidence in the talents I bring to this organization".


No, this is not the usual “We've always done it this way” conversation. Nor is it the “Try new things and go rogue” conversation. It's much simpler than that. The purpose here is for managers to stop having adult to child conversations and start having adult to adult conversations.

Many managers use fear because they're scared and have little idea how to lead people.

They quickly default to their comfort zone and what they do know about, which is getting the task done, telling others how to get it done, and becoming frustrated at any mistake that they see as an afterthought from a third person view. They also manage by fear because they are managed by fear from their superiors. When the hierarchy becomes full of individuals managing by fear, the toxicity is difficult to reverse.

*Below you'll find an action item that can (1) reduce your manager's own fear, (2) create a small win, and (3) build trust and the need for reciprocation. There are numerous levels of 'managing by fear'. Yes, some circumstances require more intensive intervention. Yes, some circumstances require removing yourself from the position or company. By considering the action item below, we begin to take a different perspective on our own effectiveness and create opportunities for a better work environment.


Manage Upwards: Model How to Have an Effective Conversation

Lead a conversation with your manager. Ask specific questions that start with ‘how’ and ‘what’, getting them to solve their own (and thus your) problems.

Here is just one example of millions:

When considering a project, ask your manager questions like:

  • What excites you about this project? I've seen you work under pressure. You get really motivated and focused.

  • What's your biggest fear with someone else being involved with the execution part of the project?

  • What kinds of pressures are you feeling about this project? I'd like to better understand this from your perspective so I can perform in a way that takes some pressure off of you.

  • What are the three most important things to you about this project?

  • What talents of mine can secure those three important things?

  • What talents of yours can secure those three important things?

  • How do I keep this project on track and help you be successful?


Before you have this type of conversation, fill in the following blanks and say it few times:

My goal here is to help [person] by doing [action] which he/she will appreciate.

When our goal is to be truly helpful to the other person, even if we don't care much for that person, the situation improves.

It may go against every fiber of your being and feel extremely awkward, but ask yourself, "Is it more effective than what I'm doing now?"

Desirable are the obvious benefits that come in the form of the answers provided by your manager. The main benefits however are the relationship, trust, communication, and understanding that result from this interaction.These are factors that can reduce the manager's own fear, simply by talking it out with someone who is actively listening.

This can create a manager who is an advocate, rather than a micro-manager. This can also give them great confidence as they become better communicators and feel the result of having an effective conversation with a direct report. This is a small win for them in their personal battle to understand how to lead others.

You may even suggest that they have this type of conversation with their own boss. This is the first step in walking effective of leadership and communication up the corporate ladder. According to Tavanti (2011),

What distinguishes excellent from average managers is their ability to effectively manage dysfunctional leaders in the workplace.

This means that in performing the action item above, your manager will gain experience with effective communication techniques before they attempt to stop their own boss from managing by fear. This creates even greater advocacy and reciprocity between you and your manager.


As always, if someone is taken aback by your new-found effective communication, allow the conversation to go something like:

Them: Wow, it isn’t like you to communicate like this.

You: I’m doing things to be a better communicator.

Them: Well, it’s kind of weird.

You: Is it better than what I’ve been doing?

Them: Yes.

You: Should I keep doing it?


These are just a few behaviors of many that you can perform in your quest for a better work environment. There is no single secret solution, there are just action items we can perform to become better communicators, steadily changing the environments we live and work in. Sometimes we hit the marks that result in immediate impact. These are the small wins that produce big momentum. 


Tavanti, M. (2011). Managing toxic leaders: Dysfunctional patterns in organizational leadership and how to deal with them. Human Resource Management, 2011, 127-136.


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