Are You Scaring Your Employees to Death?

Jan 24, 2019

By Christine Comaford

Most leaders understand that command and control is dead and that fear doesn’t motivate employees. For the most part, they refrain from doing scary things. (Only the worst “bully bosses” make it a practice to scream at an employee, call him abusive names, threaten to fire him the next time he makes the coffee too strong.) Yet somehow, even exemplary leaders may unintentionally strike fear in the hearts of their workforce—with consequences much more dire than they might realize.

Here’s why. When people feel threatened, the primitive “fight, flight, or freeze” part of the brain takes control. When that happens, when people become stuck in what I call the “Critter State” and all they can focus on is their own survival. Everything that makes them good employees—their ability to innovate, collaborate, and logically think through problems—goes out the window. All decision making is distilled down to one question: What course of action will keep me safest?

Are you inadvertently holding back your team and crippling your organization’s culture by sending your people into their Critter States? See if any of the following behaviors sounds familiar:

  • You “help them out” by giving them solutions. In other words, do you advocate when you should be inquiring? When we consistently tell people what to do instead of encouraging them to figure things out on their own, we develop a company full of order-takers instead of innovators. By training them to always ask, we create a workforce of employees who are perpetually “frozen” in their Critter State.

On the other hand, when we engage them in solving problems themselves, we create a sense of safety, belonging, and mattering—which are the three things humans crave most (after basic needs like food and shelter are met). We also help them develop a sense of ownership that will serve them—and the company—well.

Start inquiring and see what happens. Ask, “How would you do it? What impact might your course of action have?” After you do this a few times with someone, she’ll expect you to ask questions instead of give orders. She’ll start coming to you with ideas, seeking feedback and validation. And after a few of these sessions, she’ll come to you saying, “I have a plan, here it is. Are you okay with it?” Finally, she’ll stop coming to you altogether. Aim for five inquiries for every advocacy. You’ll be amazed by what a powerful difference this makes in your employees and your company.

  • Your meetings are heavy on sharing and point-proving, light on promises and requests. Why might a meeting scare your employees? Because confusion and uncertainty create fear. Meetings that are rambling and unfocused send people into the fight-flight-freeze of the Critter State. On the other hand, short, high-energy meetings that have a clear agenda keep everyone in their Smart State.

The key is to understand the five types of communication:

  1. Information sharing
  2. Sharing of oneself
  3. Debating, decision making, or point-proving
  4. Requests
  5. Promises

The typical meeting is heavy on the first three types and light on the last two. Ideally, you should have only enough information sharing to solicit requests from parties who need something and promises from parties who will fill that need. Tune up your communication and your meetings will be efficient and effective. Your team will be happy and accountability and execution will soar.

  • You give feedback to employees without first establishing rapport. Imagine for a moment that your employees are antelopes. Because you have authority over them, they quite naturally view you as a lion. It’s not that you’re purposely ruling with teeth and claws. It’s simply their critter brains at work, peering out and “coding” who is a friend and who is a foe. That means unless you can get employees to see you as “just another antelope,” you won’t be able to influence them because they’ll be too busy ensuring their own survival to accept your feedback.

Here are three “shortcut” phrases that help people feel safe enough to shift out of their Critter State:

  1. “What if…” When you use this preface to an idea/suggestion, you remove ego and reduce emotion. You’re curious—not forcing a position, but kind of scratching your head and pondering. This enables someone to brainstorm more easily with you.
  2. “I need your help.” We call this a dom-sub swap, because when the dominant person uses it, he is asking the subordinate person to rise up and swap roles. This is an especially effective phrase when you want a person to change his behavior or take on more responsibility.
  3. “Would it be helpful if…” When someone is stuck in the Critter State and spinning or unable to move forward, offering up a solution will help them see a possible course of action or positive outcome.
  • You focus on problems rather than outcomes. There are three default roles that people lean toward—Victim, Rescuer, or Persecutor. (These were first created by Dr. Stephen B. Karpman, and his article detailing these roles won the Eric Berne Memorial Scientific Award in 1972.) These roles are interdependent (there must be a Persecutor for there to be a Victim for the Rescuer to save) and they play out every day in the workplace. Together these roles make up the Tension Triangle—and when we’re in it we see everything as a problem. That causes anxiety, which leads to a reaction, which leads to another problem. It’s a self-perpetuating cycle. The solution is to switch your focus from problems to outcomes. Instead of asking “What’s wrong?” and “Why is this happening?” ask “What do we want?” and “How will we create it?”

Being outcome-focused feels very empowering and energizing. It firmly places you in your Smart State, where possibility, choice, innovation, love, and higher consciousness are abundant. Victims become Outcome Creators. Rescuers become Insight Creators. Persecutors become Action Creators.

So, how do you make the switch? First, identify each role that you and the other person are playing. Speak to the person as the positive counterpart. If he’s in Victim mode and you tend to be a Rescuer, don’t say things like “I’ll make it better for you” or “Let me help you.” Instead, say, “What outcome would you like?” and “What will having that do for you?” If you practice this strategy in every conversation and teach others to make the shift as well, you will transform your cultures and quickly start getting the outcomes you want.

  • You frame “change” the wrong way. Almost all leaders want—probably need—their companies to change; it’s the only way we can achieve growth. Yet as we know, people inherently resist change. In fact, according to Rodger Bailey’s groundbreaking work on Meta Programs in the workplace, 65% of Americans can tolerate change only if it is couched in a specific context. That context is “Sameness with Exception."

What does this mean? Essentially, that leaders need to present change as merely an improvement to what we are already doing: the bad stuff is being removed, and good stuff is being added. Don’t use the word “change”. Say “growth” instead.

Did you recognize any of the behaviors in the list above? If so, you’re not alone. The good news is that once you can make some relatively simple changes, you are likely to see dramatic improvements in your team.

All leaders want to outperform, outsell, and out-innovate the competition. Most of us have teams that are quite capable of doing so. We just need to stop scaring the competence out of them.


— Stephen Karpman, “Fairy Tales and Script Drama Analysis,” Transactional Analysis Bulletin 7, no. 26 (1968): 39–43. For more on Dr. Stephen Karpman’s work, see

—Rodger Bailey’s work in NeuroLinguistic Programming (NLP) particularly his Language and Behavior (LAB) Profile.

AMA offers a wide variety of seminars on leadership and communication. Here are several that will help you further explore the issues discussed in this article:
The Voice of Leadership: How Leaders Inspire, Influence and Achieve Results

Achieving Leadership Success Through People

Advanced Leadership Communication Strategies

About the Author(s)

Christine Comaford is a global thought leader who helps midsized and Fortune 1000 companies navigate growth and change. An expert in human behavior and applied neuroscience, she is the author of Rules for Renegades. Her latest book is SmartTribes: How Teams Become Brilliant Together. Comaford has consulted to the White House (Clinton and Bush), built and sold five of her own businesses with an average 700% return on investment. She is a leadership columnist for and is frequently quoted in the business and technology media. For more information, visit