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Respect and Fear

Blair McPherson - former Director, Author and Blogger

Two nil up a half time and the players are congratulating themselves. The captain tells the full back he is having  a great game and several other team members echo the praise. Alex Ferguson, the manager, who has so far said nothing asks the player if he thinks he is playing well, the player says ,” yes”. At which point Sir Alex gives him the full on, hair dry treatment, focusing on an incident when he did something which prior to the game he had been explicitly told not to do. The atmosphere in the changing room changes, everyone now looks very serious, there is absolutely silence until the players file back on to the pitch. The team win 4-0.

After training the next day the fullback still smarting after his public dressing down goes to see the manager in his office. The manager greets him with a friendly hello and says what’s the problem to which the player says “ I don’t understand your half time reaction at the match. I had a good game, I played well”. To which Sir Alex says ,” I know son but some of your team mates were getting over confident I needed to refocus them. I knew you were strong enough to take it”.

This type of the leadership style from a very successful manager would appear to go against the received wisdom and guidance of HR. For a start everyone knows that you praise in public and criticise in private. That you never humiliate one of your team in front of their colleagues and that if you raise your voice or verbally abuse a member of staff then they will have a legitimate grievance and you will find your behaviour scrutinised, challenged and reprimanded. Secondly it is generally accepted that performance is not improved by fear. Fear makes people anxious and nervous and thus more likely to make mistakes. Fear makes people unwilling to take risks, back their own judgment or make decisions in case they get it wrong. The result is that decisions are pushed up the management hierarchy. Yet on reading this example you could argue that the actions were justified because they worked, the team remained focused, the level of commitment was maintained in the second half and as a result there was no dip in performance. It could also be argued that as the individual subjected to the manager‘s wrath was the one recounting the story, in the context of explaining why he was such a successful manager, this was testimony to his respect for the manager.

In my option respect and fear do not go together. If a manager bullies staff, and humiliating, verbally abusing and shouting is bulling, then they can not be said to have the respect of staff. Admiring someone for their achievements is a very narrow definition of respect. In the context of people management respect is earned by demonstrating regard for another’s feelings, wishes and rights. Respect is about how people feel treated. You don’t respect someone who mistreats you, is dismissive of your views and feelings or treats you unfairly.

In other words don’t try and copy Sir Alex’s management style, football is not the real world and in the world of commerce and industry respect and fear do not go together.

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