How to Lead with Gentleness, Not Fear

“Who’s got something scary?” asked my friend’s producer. The if it bleeds, it leads mentality hung over the newsroom. The scarier the headline, the more views it would receive. It’s no secret that people respond to fear, and unfortunately, many leaders take this approach with their employees.

But fear breeds complicity, not commitment. Instead of fear-based tactics, mature leaders use gentle power. They gain influence through building trust and casting a strong vision. They are known to be for their people, not against them.

Respect is a far better motivator than fear. While fear produces behavioral compliance, it degrades self-motivation. Internal motivations are stronger than external ones. To influence performance improvements in employees, you’ll have to show respect in a way that fuels internal drive.

Leaders must prioritize self-awareness. Research shows that as people grow in positional power, they tend to lose empathy for others. It doesn’t have to be this way. As you advance in your career, you can pursue empathy-building exercises and gentle leadership methods.

Gaining influence can be difficult. To help you confidently lead with gentle power, I’ve identified three tools that generate long-term motivation in your team.

Tool 1: Courtesy

Don’t underestimate the impact of kindness. In considering others, you should behave with tact, punctuality, and attentive listening. Make eye contact when people speak to you. Introduce yourself to visitors and introduce your team to people you know. Each of these actions says, “I acknowledge your value.”

Everyone knows they should treat others the way they want to be treated, but followers of this rule are rare. As culture seems to grow coarser by the minute, the impact of civility increases.

Consider the response when a flight is cancelled. The air fills with groans and complaints. People get angry. They yell at gate attendants. The few who keep their cool and act politely to the people behind the counter stand in stark contrast. Often, attendants feel motivated to work the hardest for the kind ones. When people feel respected, they become more energetic and productive.

Tool 2: Candor

Say what you mean and mean what you say. Candor is about speech and conduct. Many corporate leaders make the mistake of keeping everything too close to vest. This leads to distrust.

You don’t have to tell everything you know, but what you do and say has to be true. Sometimes leaders avoid telling the truth because they think employees are too fragile. Instead of hiding negative facts, consider saying, “I respect you enough to believe you’re able to handle this, so I’m going to tell you the truth.”

The shortest distance between where you are and where you want to be is the truth. The quicker you share about employee underperformance and company issues, the sooner people can help correct the problem.

Tool 3: Challenge

When you challenge people, you communicate a subtle sort of respect that says, “You’re capable.” Your team will not rise to the challenge until they are given the opportunity. Your job is to provide the opportunities. You may be surprised by the results. In my own company, I’ve found that people generally perform better than I anticipate.

Consider incorporating challenges into your annual review process. As you evaluate performance, ask yourself, “What are this individual’s strengths and capabilities? How can I provide an opportunity where they express those strengths as they grow?”

You can also delegate items you’ve traditionally held tightly. Ignore titles and offer up key reports, important speech writing, project leadership, etc. Give your people a chance to shine. Provide the resources and coaching to help them succeed. In the end, both of you will win. You can clear your to do list, and they will grow through the process.

When it comes to motivation, fear works—up to a point. For lasting impact, motivate with courtesy, candor, and challenge. When you believe the best about your team, they will deliver their best.

Disclosure of Material Connection: Some of the links in the post above are “affiliate links.” This means if you click on the link and purchase the item, we will receive an affiliate commission. Regardless, we only recommend products or services we use and believe will add value to our readers. We are disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.

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