• Almost half of workers find bosses ‘threatening’, survey reveals

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  • 22 Apr 2013
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Atmosphere of fear makes workers ‘less productive’

Nearly half of all employees, 47 per cent, feel “actively threatened” by their leaders, according to a survey of 1,277 workers.

Civil service leaders are the most threatening bosses in the UK with almost three-quarters of their employees reporting their fears in the survey by leadership development consultancy Head, Heart and Brain.

Scientists (63 per cent) and doctors (60 per cent) were the second and third most threatened professionals, results showed. 

Commenting on the civil service findings, the consultancy suggested these workers may feel more threatened than other professionals because their organisation has undergone major changes in the past three years.

Jan Hills, partner at Head, Heart and Brain, said that the current economic climate has caused public and private sector leaders to feel they have to run just to stand still.  “[Bosses] are under immense pressure to make their organisations leaner, while also improving performance. And pressure breeds threatening behaviour if it isn’t channelled in the right way. If it is managed in the wrong way, stress can gradually erode the quality of their leadership until it deteriorates to a disastrously low level. It creates a vicious downward cycle where productivity begins to suffer as the work force begins to feel increasingly threatened by brain-fried leaders,” Hills explained.

This suggestion is supported by a survey of Whitehall staff, conducted by the FDA union earlier this year, which also showed that two-thirds of Britain's most senior civil servants are so demoralised that they are thinking about quitting. In addition, the same FDA poll found that a quarter of staff in the top three grades of the service want to leave immediately.

“UK leaders are failing to send out positive signals of reward to their employees. It is making organisations less productive and more resistant to change, something which the UK cannot afford as it tries to drag itself out the economic quicksand created by the 2008 financial crisis,” said Hills. She said that neuroscience shows that the best leaders consciously manage their employees in a way that makes them feel rewarded.  Feelings of reward boost engagement, boost decision making skills, and boost productivity. However, if  employees feel threatened, they process information less effectively and can’t perform at their best.

Another sector with high levels of employee anxiety caused by leaders is retail with 58 per cent of retail managers reporting that their boss made them feel threatened, which is well above the UK average of 47 per cent.  This suggests the poor performance of some UK retailers – and the sector’s particularly poor set of Christmas 2012 results – are in part due to the brain-fried and threatening leadership of retail bosses, the consultancy said.

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  • I suggest that the consultants have made an erroneous assumption about the Civil Service - threatening Civil Service leaders are nothing new. I resigned about 10 years ago and one of the reasons for my decision was what I saw as the threatening and bullying approach taken by some Civil Service managers.

    JonathanHirst - no you have not become threatening but have displayed a worrying lack of empathy and understanding by a person who may work in HR.

  • I have a couple of issues with this article although I can certainly see how the pressure on bosses/managers causes them to respond differently and potentially in a more threatening manner. Firstly, I take issue with the comment that civil service respondents felt more threatened because of the amount of organisational change over the past 3 years. There is no evidence that the civil service has gone through more change - many if not all private sector businesses have gone through significant change too.

    And secondly, Two thirds of Britain's most senior civil servants are considering quitting - great - let them. That would reduce their stress and open up opportunities for others.

    Stress is an overused word in todays working society - people should stop complaining about it and approach their jobs and life in a more positive way.

    Hmmm - have I just become threatening.....

  • Jan Hills as summarised in the article 'UK bosses cannot afford not to send out  positive signals to employees' is spot on. However they is a qualifying caveat to this précis employees are equally responsible to preform well in their jobs. Increasing globalisation will increase the pressure on us all nevertheless this cannot be an excuse for inappropriate management style. Superior results requires collaborative approach not a threatening environment. An informative article.