Countless numbers of employees--perhaps millions--are working in a climate of fear under "tough bosses" whose operating style inhibits their performance and their companies' progress.
"There are still leaders and firms that view fear, distrust and meanness as desirable management techniques," say Stanford University professors Jeffrey Pfeffer and Robert Sutton, who are authorities on organizational behavior.
Sutton stresses that the vast majority of businesses do not operate in this fashion, but he says the practice is nevertheless "more common than we would hope." "Even in Silicon Valley," he adds, "it strikes me how often people report feeling that way."
"Managing through fear and building organizations that are filled with distrust is not only inhumane, it is bad business," Pfeffer and Sutton say in their forthcoming book, "The Knowing-Doing Gap" (Harvard Business School Press).
The authors cite a 1994 poll of 2,400 employed adults by Princeton Survey Research Associates that found that one in six workers claims to have withheld a suggestion about improving work efficiency out of fear that it would cost someone a job.
The authors also say in the book that even a 1997 workplace study of a large company not known for mean-spiritedness illustrates "the pervasiveness of fear and distrust." In that company:
* Only 47% of employees felt they could challenge accepted practices.
* Only 46% said they were sure of their jobs even if they continued to perform well.
* Only 45% thought management was interested in their well-being.
* Only 37% said "innovative ideas can fail without penalty to the originating person or work unit."
In an atmosphere of intimidation, the authors argue, workers are so afraid of being fired that they cannot concentrate on their duties.
"Only the immediate frightening prospects of job loss, pay cuts, demotions and unwanted transfers loom in people's minds. Consequently, efforts to implement knowledge that might actually reduce the threat in the long term founder on short-term fears of the consequences of their implementation," Pfeffer and Sutton write. That factor leads to a gulf between corporate knowing and doing.
In fact, so many companies are afflicted by nasty bosses that the current Harvard Business Review devotes an article to the topic of "The Toxic Handler"--the manager who steps between boss and employees.
"He walked all over people," is how one "toxic handler" at a public utility described his boss. "He made fun of them; he intimidated them; he criticized work for no reason; and he changed plans daily.
"Another project manager was hospitalized with ulcers and took early retirement," the toxic handler continued. "People throughout the organization felt scared and betrayed. Everyone was running around and whispering, and the copy machine was going nonstop with resumes. No one was working. People could barely function."
Where there's a management philosophy that people work hardest when they strive to avoid punishment, there will be people becoming adept at finding ways "to blame and punish others," Pfeffer and Sutton write.
"In such a setting there is no way for people to work together for collective benefit, and lots of reasons for them to undermine each other's work and reputations."
One ray of hope is that in an environment of declining unemployment and faced with a shortage of help, some previously ham-handed employers are now making nice to their employees, Sutton said. He questions, though, "how sincere or long-lasting such changes in approach will prove to be."
According to Pfeffer and Sutton, companies can drive out fear and inaction by changing their operating philosophies.
Well-managed companies that shine as examples of how to do it right, they say, include Levi Strauss, Men's Wearhouse, Southwest Airlines, Hewlett-Packard, PSS/World Medical and software maker SAS Institute.
To banish workplace fear, Pfeffer and Sutton say, managements should:
* Encourage open communication.
* Praise, pay and promote people who deliver bad news to their bosses.
* Treat failure to act as the only true failure; punish inaction, not unsuccessful actions.
* Encourage leaders to talk about their failures, especially what they learned from them.
* Give people second and third chances.
* Banish people--especially leaders--who humiliate others.
* Learn from, and even celebrate mistakes, particularly when it comes to trying something new.
Sherwood Ross is a freelance writer who covers workplace topics for Reuters. He can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.