How Fear of Failure Drives Bad Management

Have you ever noticed how job listings often ask for candidates that are “entrepreneurial,” “driven,” and “self motivated”?

What they’re really saying is that they want to hire someone who will think of the company like it’s their own. People who will do whatever it takes to get the job done–not because they’ve been told to do it, but because it will help drive the company forward.

This is incredibly valuable.

If your entire company felt motivated like the company was their own, they would undoubtedly be more productive, more effective, and more committed.

But, there’s a problem.

The same companies that post these job listings looking for “entrepreneurial” candidates turn around and put these people in roles that are actually the opposite. Most roles in most companies are quite inherently unentrepreneurial.

Companies hire “entrepreneurial” people to sit in cubicles and take orders from the boss all day.

What gives?

Holding on too tightly

Most companies that say they want to hire “entrepreneurial people” never treat those people like entrepreneurs.

Instead, they micromanage them.

They give them narrow roles and specific instructions and then watch over their shoulder to make sure they’re doing exactly what they were told. They make them track every minute of their day and clock in at a special time every morning.

In this kind of environment, work quality and responsibility don’t matter–just that you follow the rules.

And this is the problem with how creative, entrepreneurial people are managed.

Actual entrepreneurs aren’t micromanaged and given small menial tasks to check off of a list each day. They have the full picture of what is trying to be accomplished and then they have to create a plan–right or wrong–to get there. So why do companies say they want to hire “entrepreneurial” people and then never give them the chance to be entrepreneurial?

Because they might fail. And that’s really scary for most companies.

Most companies are afraid that they’ll give people entrepreneurial freedom and they’ll make the wrong choice or fail to accomplish what they’re supposed to do. So, instead, they create very specific, narrow jobs and tasks. They take creative thinkers and problem solvers and put them into roles where responsibility is so narrow that they can’t possibly screw it up. They turn them into cogs.

But this thinking becomes pervasive in company culture–it’s poisonous.

By micromanaging the hell out of employees, what we’re really saying to people is, “I don’t trust you to figure this out on your own.” And that lack of confidence echoes loudly, turning an otherwise driven and creative person into just a shell of themselves.

We’re so afraid to fail that we hire people who are entrepreneurial and then tell them what to do all day.

Then, they either get pissed off and leave or we grind down their self-drive to the point that when we really need them to come through or think for themselves, they’ve forgotten how to do it.

Repeat this over the course of a career and people become apathetic, lazy, and irreverent about anything other than clocking in, earning a paycheck, and clocking out.

Employees feel undervalued, unappreciated, and unimportant. They’re conditioned to not give a shit about their jobs by jobs that don’t give a shit about them.

That’s not to say that all management is bad. Structure and process are important and great managers serve as leaders and mentors.

But the paradox of management is that what often passes as good management–top-down directives, strict marching orders, and tight adherence to corporate policies and procedures–is actually what zaps the power and motivation from your team.

The tighter you try to control things, usually the shittier things turn out.

I think the key to effective management is to resist those urges. It’s to let go.

Give your people the freedom to operate in a truly entrepreneurial way and to solve problems and create value with their knowledge, skills, and talents. This may be scary in the short run, but it gives people the ability to grow and learn, developing more skills and more capacity for self-management.

It’s about investing in people.

Letting go

This whole article basically boils down to one main point: Hire good people and trust them.

I don’t have any magical formulas or secret management strategies that will help you turn “ordinary people” into extraordinary performers other than to get the hell out of their way.

In most cases, I don’t think it’s a problem of people not being smart enough or driven enough or talented enough. I think that most people are so used to being treated as subservient employees that they become task-doers rather than problem solvers. And the only way to reverse that is to trust people to solve problems on their own.

As a business owner, this should be the goal anyway. Micromanagement is not an effective way to build a business–you end up spending all of your time giving specific tasks and instructions to the people you hired to think for themselves. That’s a pretty bad way to run a business.

So, instead, I let go.

I give people freedom and ability to think, create, and do. When important things are on the line or projects feel like they may be losing direction or are getting stuck, I offer some help if it’s needed. Then I step back.

My management process isn’t really to manage people at all. I see my job as being to manage the dates, projects, budgets, and processes that help people do their best work. Then, let people manage themselves.

I try to stick a few basic rules:

  1. Give specific deadlines and dates
  2. Assign goals, not tasks
  3. Flatten hierarchies
  4. Answer any and every question
  5. Provide direct and honest feedback
  6. Create systems that help people work better and more efficiently
  7. Get the hell out of the way

I would be lying if I said that my instincts don’t sometimes urge me to jump in and tighten the reigns. I think that’s only a natural response, especially for the type of people who are used to being in charge. But, I fight that need for control and remind myself that trusting people to do what they’re supposed to do is the best policy.

As far as I’m concerned, the best type of management is the one that gives as much power as possible to the people who do the work and gives them the freedom to explore and create.

My motto is simple: Trust more. Manage less.

Top image via Freepik.

Tyler Hakes

Tyler is the strategy director and principal at Optimist. He's been helping helping startups, agencies, and corporate clients achieve growth through strategic content marketing and SEO for over ten years. These days it's hard to find him anywhere as he nomads around the globe, but when you do, he's probably iterating on research strategies to better serve Optimist clients.