5 Mistakes Leaders Unknowingly Make That Scare Their Employees To Death



Without even realizing it, most leaders do and say things that send employees into their “critter state,” where every decision they make is driven by fear. Here I reveal some of the subtle yet damaging mistakes we make — and how to fix them.

Many leaders know that “command and control” is dead and that fear doesn’t motivate employees. Quite the opposite, in fact. That’s why, for the most part, we refrain from doing scary things. (Only the worst bully bosses make it a practice to scream at an employee or call him abusive names or threaten to fire him the next time he makes the coffee too strong.) Yet even good leaders unintentionally strike fear in the hearts of their workforce.

More accurately, we strike it into their brains. And the consequences are direr than you might realize.

From time to time, we all say and do things that spark unconscious fears in our employees. The primitive “fight, flight, or freeze” part of the brain takes control. When that happens, when people are stuck in what I call the critter state, all they can focus on is their own survival. In other words, everything that makes them good employees — their abilities to innovate, to collaborate, to logically think through problems — goes out the window. All decision making is distilled down to one question: What course of action will keep me safest?

Obviously, we need our employees to be in control of their whole brain — especially the parts responsible for the emotional engagement and intelligent decision making that lead to high performance. Today’s economy demands it. That’s why my business — teaching leaders how to use the best tactics from neuroscience to get teams unstuck and shift them into their so-called smart state — is booming.

I regularly work with clients who master these techniques and quickly see their revenues and profits increase by up to 200% annually. It just goes to show how pervasive fear in the workplace actually is — and how crippling it can be.

In my book, “SmartTribes: How Teams Become Brilliant Together,” I ask how might we be inadvertently holding back our teams and crippling our own cultures? What, exactly, are we doing to send our people into their critter state? More to the point, what are you doing? Here are a few (very subtle) offenders.

You “Help Them Out” By Giving Them Solutions

Or you advocate when you should be inquiring. When we consistently tell people what to do instead of encouraging them to figure things out on their own, we develop a company full of order-takers instead of innovators. By training them to always ask, we create a workforce of employees who are perpetually frozen in their critter state.

On the other hand, when we engage them in solving problems themselves, we create a sense of safety, belonging, and mattering, which are the three things humans crave most (after basic needs like food and shelter). And, of course, we help them develop a sense of ownership that will serve them — and the company — well.


Start inquiring, and see what happens. Ask them, “How would you do it? What impact might your course of action have?” After you do this a few times with someone, she’ll start expecting you to ask questions instead of give orders. She’ll start coming to you with ideas, seeking feedback and validation. And, after a few of these sessions, she’ll come to you, saying, “I have a plan, here it is, and speak now if you aren’t OK with it.” Finally, she’ll stop coming to you altogether.

Aim for five inquiries for every advocacy. You’ll be amazed by what a powerful difference this makes in your employees and your company.

Your Meetings Are Heavy On Sharing And Point-Proving But Light On Promises And Requests

Why might a meeting scare your employees? Because confusion and uncertainty create fear. Meetings that are rambling and unfocused send people into the fight-flight-freeze of the critter state. On the other hand, short, sweet, high-energy meetings that have a clear agenda keep everyone in their smart state.

The key is to understand the five types of communication: information sharing; sharing of oneself; debating, decision-making, and point-proving; requests; and promises.

The typical meeting is heavy on the first three and light on the last two. Ideally, you should focus on only enough information sharing in order to solicit requests from parties who need something and promises from parties who will fill that need.

Tune up your communication, and the result will be meetings that are efficient and effective, and that keep your team happy and clipping along to glorious accountability and execution.

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We believe that neuroscience is the next great scientific frontier, and that advances in understanding the nature of the brain, consciousness, behavior, and health will transform human life in this century.

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