Is it Better for Your Career to Be Feared or Respected?

Illustration of a manager feared by two people and a manager shaking hands with a man

Whether you’re a company leader, departmental manager or just received your first post in a supervisory role, you hold authority and status at work and in your career. So, it’s time to ask yourself a tough question: is it better to be feared or respected?

Automatically, your brain will probably cue your moral reasoning, and you’ll find yourself in favour of respect. But what if we’re confusing fear with respect in our careers? Maybe you haven’t considered that you’re a feared leader at work. Seriously, who would point it out to you?

As a leader, you’ll know good leaders are good for business. But just as we’re all different, so are our leadership styles. There isn’t a right way to lead, and not all situations require the same type of leadership. But there may be a more appropriate way to behave as a leader within your unique context at work.

Surprisingly, both fear and respect have a place in leading and managing others. To determine whether it’s more suitable for you to lead with fear or respect, we’ll have a look at the pros and cons of each approach.

The pros of being feared

1. You will get desired behaviour

Leading with fear is a reliable way to ensure you can readily control others. Fearful followers will perform how you want them to, immediately. Research (PDF) shows that being nice isn’t correlated with achieving desired goals. In other words, being less friendly sometimes leads to more money. If you see your manager firing a colleague at work, we can both agree that you’ll be behaving perfectly under his supervision.

Also, fear is a faster way to get the job done instead of slowly building trust. Fearful followers feel a sense of urgency because they dread the punishment which comes along with displeasing you, whether that’s potentially losing their job or experiencing feelings of disappointment.

2. You will have cooperation

Not only is instilling fear quicker, it’s also an easier (and harsher) way to get things done just how you want them to be done. Fearful followers operate in survival mode. No fearful follower will take the risk and disagree with you. They’ll listen attentively and do as they’re instructed.

This means that there’ll be fewer disputes and disagreements at work, which, as we know, take time away from what needs to get done. As a leader, if you’re confident that your way and only your way is correct, cooperation that is coxed out of fear prevents other employees from interfering with your plans.

3. You won’t be seen as weak

Fear provides a source of power over others. Your followers will view you as holding a higher status, rank and strength so that no one will take advantage of you. You hold all the power at work, and your followers lack it.

You’ll feel a sense of pride and ownership in your career, especially if you controlled the activities which led to success. These feelings from work will spread into other areas of your life, making you feel strong and self-confident in your personal life too.

But before you start practising some fear-inducing threats, there’re also some big cons associated with using fear tactics in your career.

The cons of being feared

1. There will be disempowerment

A culture of fear can be toxic to your company. While you hold power, your followers are disempowered.

Disempowerment inhibits improvements. Your followers will constantly be intimidated and compliant. Therefore they’re not focused on doing better; they’re only focused on not making mistakes. Acting with mediocrity and blame-shifting, in other words, leads to no employee growth.

2. There will be less creativity

Being a feared leader means you generally don’t want to learn anything new in your career. But why would you? Your way is best, right? Other ideas are, therefore, never explored.

This directs your followers into rigid mindsets; you’re promoting virtually zero freedom for imagination, innovation or creativity. This allows the competition to run ahead and leave you and your company behind. Sometimes, as a leader, whether you like to admit it or not, someone else might have a better idea than your own.

3. You will lose followers

Your followers can only operate effectively in survival mode for a limited time. As the saying goes, employees don’t quit their jobs, they quit their bosses.

The common theme which unites all unhappy workers is feeling unvalued, unappreciated and unacknowledged - feelings which are common among fearful followers. I mean, why would someone stay in a company when they’re spending half of their salary on anxiety treatment? A feared leader may be detrimental to keeping good employees happy and retaining talent within their firm.

All in all, the common opinion is that the cons of fear far outweigh the pros of fear in leadership. This signals that it isn’t a good idea to lead with fear purposely. So, what about being respected, instead?

The pros of being respected

1. There is effective communication

Respect is the ultimate cornerstone to good leadership and effective communication. Leading with respect means showing respect and gaining trust, over time. When there’s trust, there’s clear and open communication. Your followers will be real with you, have their own voice and feel supported. This has a long-lasting, positive influence at work.

Your team is stronger when they respect you, operating with authenticity and transparency. They won’t fear asking you and others for ideas, feedback and help. You’ll find that, when you’re respected, your followers will also admit when they’re wrong. This enhances your company’s ability to change, improve, create and innovate; these are essential components in a competitive market.

2. You will have committed followers

The success of a company relies on good followership rather than great leadership. When your followers respect you, they’ll trust you and take your instructions seriously, for a long time.

True followership ultimately enhances your influence at work and in your career. You’ll inspire your followers, and they’ll act according to your example, aligning themselves to your goals, without your constant supervision and micromanagement. Those inspired followers, in turn, go out to influence more people, and a domino effect occurs in the company. Respect is a winning strategy to increase your team’s morale and commitment.

3. Your team will thrive

Great leaders make those around them better, and every great leader knows that the success of their company relies on its employees. But not just on any employees; to succeed, a company needs thriving and satisfied employees. Indeed, a 2016 study (PDF) proved that employee satisfaction determines a company’s performance.

As a respected leader, you’ll be able to unlock your team’s full potential. By being someone they respect, you’re essentially providing them with the environment and support to go above and beyond their call of duty, eliminating mediocrity and expanding the potential of the company and making it more competitive. Why wouldn’t you want to do that?

Well, some have an answer to that question. Here’s a few small reasons why critics think that gaining respect isn’t a perfect approach in leadership.

The cons of being respected

1. There will be more conflict

When you’re respected, you become a person your team can communicate with and, unfortunately, disagree with, too.

When you open up communication channels, you are bound to face diverse and contradictory opinions which could waste time. Being a respectful leader means you’re giving employees the power to form and express their opinions of what they believe is right for the company.

But what if their ideas are not in line with your own beliefs? Or if different team members have different ideas of what is right? This is a scenario where, as a respected leader, you will need to be able to reach an agreeable conclusion and resolve any conflict.

2. You will have to live up to certain expectations

Those who gain respect lead by example. So, as you can probably imagine, the pressure to consistently uphold respect can be burdensome and tiring.

When you are respected, you are admired. With your followers’ eyes on you, you might have to go to great lengths to avoid criticism. Even on the worst days, you might have to put on a smile to preserve unrealistic expectations.

You’d think you’d also be allowed to complain around the coffee machine like everyone else, right? No, a respected leader avoids this kind of leadership mistakes to maintain their influence.

3. You might have to sacrifice time for other responsibilities

Communicating with others and leading effectively takes a lot of time, energy and focus. When you’re respected, your followers are not afraid of asking for guidance, and your superiors trust you with more duties.

Most of the time, you’re on a time budget. Respected leaders may especially experience this in the digital era; no leader can be fully off duty because you’re just a phone call away from solving everyone’s problems. Leaders who care a lot about their work may become drained of energy, and they struggle to maintain a work-life balance. As a result, either their job or their personal life suffers.

So, is it better to be feared or respected? The popular opinion is that we tend to follow a leader we can respect. However, a high degree of respect does not guarantee a leader’s success, and fear can be a powerful but harsh tool in ensuring success.

In any case, leadership isn’t a matter of deciding if respect trumps fear. It’s about balancing leadership qualities within your unique context at work.

If you’re leading with fear, you’re the one holding all the power. This could result in oppression and resentment, or it could lead to quick goal attainment for a short period.

If you’re leading with respect, there’s shared power amongst you and your followers. This means you’re meeting them at their level, utilising empathy, communication and diversity of thought but also more energy and time.

Tweaking your leadership approach can be a small change in style with a massive shift in the outcome. When it comes down to it, it’s all about balancing management styles to be an effective leader within your career environment.

To stay motivated as a leader, you can do this by reading inspiring quotes, learning new leadership skills and reading up on some handy leadership tips and tricks. There’s always room for improvement.

What do you think then? Is it better to be feared or respected as a leader? Share your thoughts with us in the comments section below.


This article is an updated version of an earlier article originally published on 31 May 2016.