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As A Leader Is It Better To Be Feared Or Respected?

If you’ve ever sat down with a bowl of popcorn to watch the Devil Wear’s Prada or Office Space you know what fearful bosses look like. These are the boss that strike terror into their employees, a simple email can trigger a wave of despair. As a government leader you don’t want to be that type of boss. You want your staff to respect you. But how do you create a culture of respect and not fear?

Alesia Latson is a speaker, trainer, coach and founder of Latson Leadership Group, She had come up with four ways that leaders can stop triggering fear in their employees. She told me during GovLoop’s State and Local Spotlight interview that sometimes bosses don’t even realize they are scaring their employees.


“Making the distinction between being a fear inducing boss and a respected boss is key. What most leaders don’t realize is the authority that comes with their role. The reality is that as human beings we have a fundamental response to people we perceive as being at a different status than us. For example, when a doctor comes in there is a quickening of our pulse. If a teacher calls on you in class there is a quickening of the pulse. When you realize that impact, there are things you can do to have that authority work in your favor, so that people are aligned to you. There are ways you can make it work so that people want to be a part of what you are about. If you are not mindful of that you can inadvertently have people be afraid. It is very important for leaders to be aware and mindful of the impact they can have,” said Latson.

Government is built on hierarchy

“When a GS-10 is talking to a GS-6, trust me, the GS-6 realizes there is a differential. There is a natural concern about how this person is going to view me. How do they see me? Am I going to be good enough, smart enough, brave enough? There is all of this noise that accompanies a status differential. For the GS-10 there are things you can do to lower that noise. When that noise gets lowered it increases a person’s ability to be creative and thoughtful,” said Latson.

Avoid: Please come to my office for a moment

  • “The best thing to do to diminish the fear response is to headline. Headlining means just giving a person a heads up as to what is behind the request. If you want someone to come to your office, just give them a heads up as to why. Say, ‘I am just looking over the budget and I have a couple of questions. I wanted to get your insights.’ Framing your request lessens the fear response. If a request is open ended, ‘Can you come to my office?’ Trust me, they are going to think the worst. They are not thinking, ‘Oh, this is my lucky day. I am getting a raise.'” said Latson.

Be curious

  • “The best way to create an environment of curiosity is to just ask a lot of questions. You can demonstrate your own curiosity. There is a skill to asking questions. It is very important that you ask open ended questions. With open-ended questions you are asking and inviting people to the conversation. Open ended questions start with what, how, when, where and why. My favorite open ended questions always start with the words what and how. Those are such powerful questions to ask. Why questions are also powerful, but the thing about why questions is tone is very important. You have to use a neutral zone,” said Latson.

Set Ground Rules

“People find routines and rules comforting. Ground rules give people an expectation. People want to do a good job, they want to please their boss. When the leader can be really clear about what success looks like, what they are looking for, it takes the guess work out and increases the likelihood that a leader will get what they want from people,” said Latson.

Better to be feared than ignored?

  • “Historically there are just a lot of examples of leaders who use fear as a tactic. What you miss when you are feared, that get an abundance when you are respected is people’s discretionary effort. People will go the extra mile for you. They will anticipate what makes you happy. They want to contribute. When you are feared the won’t do that,” said Latson.

Here’s a fun clip from the Office to demonstrate Latson’s points:

If you enjoyed our GovLoop’s State and and Local Spotlight interview, you can more interviews under keyword “emily’s corner.”

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Profile Photo Daniel Crystal

I worked for a boss who was a bully and attempted to use fear and intimidation to keep the team “in line.” They were genuinely shocked when the entire team, both government and contractor, left for other jobs, and the boss suddenly found themself stuck doing the work of 3 to 4 people.

I’ve found that a leader that attempts to rule by coercion has insecurities, and is afraid their subordintes (or their peers) will exploit them. It’s a shame, because the boss wasn’t a bad person, just not someone you want to work for.

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