Most of us believe that we’re approachable to our employees. In a survey we conducted with 4,000 professionals, two-thirds reported they are never or rarely scary to those junior to them.
We’re even more sure that we’re approachable to those who are our hierarchical equals or superiors. Asked whether their peers and their bosses would find them scary, 75% of respondents said it was extremely unlikely in the case of their peers and 80% in the case of their boss.
Yet we know from our other research streams of the last five years that many people think twice before speaking up in organizations because they find colleagues intimidating. This doesn’t add up. Other research shows that managers, in particular, need to accept that people see them as much scarier than they realize — and it’s hurting their businesses.
For example, the friendly COO of a global bank told us that it took him years to realize that the light suggestions he made when walking the trading floors were causing chaos. His colleagues took each suggestion as a firm instruction and followed it to the letter because they were scared of him — and nobody felt that they could tell him. He had never imagined that people wouldn’t come to him if there was a problem.
Of course, there are times when managers might want to be perceived as scary, such as when they are in a contested negotiation or facing down behavior that’s unacceptable. But most of the time managers need to be approachable. If employees are afraid to speak up, engagement suffers, learning moments go unrecognized, misconduct goes unquestioned, and innovations go unrealized.
The risks of silence or unquestioned compliance can also be more dire: Consider Boeing and the safety failures of the 737 Max, and Goldman Sachs and the 1MDB corruption scandal. [More]