Why fear rules the workplace

Jun 22 2007 by Chetan Dhruve Print This Article

What is it about the workplace that makes millions of people around the world, regardless of national culture, afraid of their bosses? Fear can be dangerous; it can turn into a mindset in which things aren't questioned and unthinking obedience to authority is normal. In fact, most of the advice we hear in the workplace with regards to bosses says one thing and one thing only: don't complain about your boss, however bad.

Of course, most industries are trying to fix things - through training, "empowerment", "leadership", skills-building and so on. So why, despite all this, is fear so widely prevalent in the offices of our apparently modern and enlightened age? The answer, strangely enough, is that our workplaces have been unwittingly designed to produce fear.

How so? Let's take a seemingly unrelated example. What happens when two gases in their natural state - oxygen and hydrogen - interact? They produce water. A property of water is wetness. In effect, oxygen and hydrogen are designed to produce wetness when they interact.

This property of wetness is called an "emergent property", in the language of a field of study called Systems Thinking which asserts that any system is, put simply, the whole that results from the mutual interaction of its parts

The existence of a relationship – not just the romantic kind – between two people depends on the interaction between those two individuals. If the interaction stops – say one person opts out - the entity 'relationship' ceases to exist.

Hence, a relationship is a system. To answer the question of why fear rules the workplace, we need to understand the nature of the defining relationship at the office – that between boss and subordinate.

In today's world, we don't use the word boss anymore. The preferred term is that glamorous word, 'leader'
In today's world, we don't use the word boss anymore. And there has also been a decline in words like manager or supervisor. The preferred term is that noble and glamorous word, 'leader'.

So now we have team leaders, project leaders, group leaders, department leaders, organisation leaders and so on. Anyone who has people reporting to him or her is called a leader, and it's obvious why; a leader is someone in charge of other people and has power over those people. This sounds reasonable enough.

But dig a little deeper. In the context of leading people, who truly is a leader? Typically, we respond to this question by listing skills: a leader is someone who is proactive, takes charge, sets goals, inspires people, knows how to constructively criticize, is humble, has emotional intelligence and so on.

But this response doesn't answer the question 'who' – instead, it answers the question 'what' – what skills should a leader have? In contrast, society has a very simple and straightforward definition for 'who is leader?' That definition is: a leader is someone who is elected. And by definition, an unelected person is a dictator.

At the office, your boss has power over you, but hasn't been elected by you. That makes him or her a dictator. If he or she is a dictator, that makes you a subject. And since there's an interaction between boss and subordinate, between dictator and subject, we have a relationship – a system. What kind of system is it? A dictatorship system.

Remember we talked about the "emergent property" of wetness which came from oxygen and hydrogen? What property emerges when a dictator and a subject interact? For the subject, it is fear. For the dictator, it's absolute power. Bosses often abuse their power through petty harassment or worse. Subordinates, even if they're assertive and intelligent people, often behave submissively in the face of overweening bosses.

It's important to note that a person may not exhibit any dictatorial traits before gaining power. These traits only emerge when there's an interaction with a subordinate. Likewise, a person may not display any submissive traits before interacting with a superior.

So, just as the interaction between hydrogen and oxygen naturally results in wetness, when one person has power over another person, fear is a natural result for the underling. This fear pervades the workplace, because everyone (save the owner) has a boss.

Even if you have a 'good' boss, you'd still be fearful on some level. This fear doesn't have to be the emotion in its raw form – it could simply be an attitude in which we unthinkingly accept whatever the boss says. Since it's perfectly acceptable to not criticise bosses or to consistently agree with them, this attitude of submissive compliance becomes so ingrained that we may not even notice it.

Having said that, we continue trying to 'repair' individual bosses because we're after a big prize: freedom. A free system is critically important for organizations. The official investigations that followed the Challenger and Columbia space shuttle disasters, and also the intelligence failure into the absence of WMDs (weapons of mass destruction) in Iraq, blamed a "layering effect". Because of this, the reports of experts on the ground changed to reflect the views of the higher ups as these reports moved up the hierarchy.

Why did this happen? Because of fear. People do not challenge their bosses, and conversely, bosses feel that's it's fine to over-rule subordinates, even when those subordinates have more expertise than the bosses themselves.

And so, we want to empower our employees so they take initiatives, are more willing to speak up and so forth. But despite all this, employees still don't feel truly empowered and free; why are they still, in the end, scared of their bosses?


Why your boss is programmed to be a dictator Chetan Dhruve's book, Why your boss is programmed to be a dictator, examines why bosses behave the way they do - why do even the nicest, friendliest people can so quickly become dictators when they become bosses. This book explains why – and what we can do about it to make our working lives more tolerable.

The reason is simple: you can't beat the system. Philip Zimbardo, a prominent social scientist, puts it neatly: if you put good apples in a bad situation, you will get bad apples. If you make a nice person a dictator, he's going to behave like a dictator. All bosses are, by definition, dictators. So it's not surprising that they behave as dictators.

Instead of targeting individual behaviour for "reform", we've got to aim for freedom as an "emergent property" of the system. And that means changing the system entirely. Once we get the right system in place, behaviors will automatically change.

The question then obviously is, what kind of systems have freedom as an emergent property? You know the answer to this one – systems in which people have power over their leaders, a system in which people can vote for their leaders.

These leaders are leaders by definition, because people can vote for them. And just as dictatorship is a system, leadership is a system too. And it's in a leadership system that freedom is an emergent property. In other words, a leadership system is a free system.

Hence, we need to change our workplace systems from fear-systems to free-systems. The only way to do that, bizarre though it may sound, is to have subordinates vote for their bosses. Until that happens, things are not going to fundamentally change.

About The Author

Chetan Dhruve
Chetan Dhruve

Chetan Dhruve is the author of "Why your boss is programmed to be a dictator". He has worked for several organizations, including IBM, Cisco Systems and the UK Department for International Development. He has an MBA from Cass Business School.