The worst feeling your employees can have about their jobs is fear—and the worst thing you can do for your organization is to stoke that fear. Ruling by fear is an “old school” management style that might have worked once, but the new generation doesn’t put up with that bullying approach—just read their daily Facebook posts. Although current economic uncertainties and a shortage of well-paying jobs are empowering some managers to try the old-school fear technique once again, it is a bad strategy in the long term.  

From an outsider’s view, having interviewed an increasing number of employees from big-box locations, it appears larger organizations are struggling today more than ever to manage employees. There is no doubt the executives of these stores don’t advocate fear as a means to manage employees, but there is a definite talent and training gap in mid-level and store management that is fueling the problem. During a recent interview, a big-box employee said, “There is not a day that I go to work in which I don’t fear for my job.” To be clear, this employee is not a part-time stock boy but an experienced, successful floor associate.

One reason for the rise of employee fear is companies are allowing unskilled managers to assume positions for which they are not prepared or qualified. There is an overall labor shortage in the market due to the economic collapse. Seven years of economic stagnation, reduced budgets, and part-time work culture have pushed veteran managers to the sidelines and created a huge gap in the availability of experienced, trained, and qualified managers.

Companies throughout America are so desperate for managers that too often someone with marginal experience and basic standards—such as the ability to pass a drug test, a background check, and show up for work—gets the keys to the store. These unskilled managers normally don’t rule by fear because they are sadistic, they simply don’t know how to lead. The line between fear and respect leadership is razor-thin, and many untrained managers cannot distinguish the difference. 

Another aspect being missed is that these big-box stores are not prisons, and there are other opportunities beyond those behemoth walls. There is a whole new world of independent dealers eagerly awaiting the chance to hire great employees that are turned off by the large corporate management mentality that includes fear, carrots, sticks, and broken promises. Most independent dealers offer comparable pay with better hours and a better work environment where company directions are not changed daily. 

Despite the economic challenges, fear will work only for a short time in managing people, because everyone demands respect in today’s world. If good employees feel they are being disrespected, dismissed, or intimidated, they will leave. The solution starts with executives talking one-on-one with their employees—without their bosses present—to see if a fear culture exists. If it does, first look at yourself and your communications to make sure you are not the problem. 

Next, identify management who just don’t get it and either train or get rid of them. Finally, invest in training to promote real leadership from the top to the bottom. If you replace fear management with leadership that inspires, nothing can stop the success of your organization. If you don’t, all the independent dealers in America just want to say, “thank you.”