Better to Be Feared Than Loved in the Workplace?

An expose by The Wall Street Journal, published last week, showcases a brutal culture at Netflix, a company that had been celebrated for years as a great place to work. The findings, summarized in Cnet, focus on a culture of fear at the company. Employees are described as coming to work every day fearing they will be fired.

Netflix, according to the report, teaches managers they should only keep the workers they would “fight to keep.” There also is a description of employees afraid to comfort laid-off co-workers. They fear being seen as violating the “Netflix way.”

There are two management philosophies. One says you engender loyal, hardworking employees by treating them well and showing them appreciation—getting them to love you—while the other says you get superior work out of employees when they live in fear for their jobs.

My tendency as a manager would be to show love and support to employees, correcting, disciplining, and terminating, when necessary, rather than seeking to keep them on their toes in a constant state of fear. That would be my tendency because that’s the approach that works best for me as an employee with my particular personality. It’s possible the fear-based approach might work on employees who have a different personality.

In my current job at a health-trade publication, we have a doctor who serves as an editorial advisor and gives a popular presentation based on Florence Littauer’s book, “Personality Plus at Work: How to Work Successfully with Anyone.” Littauer’s approach breaks down personalities into four major types, with each person having one of the types as a dominant personality trait and another one of the types as a secondary trait. The four types are:

  • Powerful
  • Playful
  • Perfect
  • Peaceful

Powerfuls like to assert themselves, take charge, manage others, and often thrive in challenging, less sensitive environments filled with strife. Playfuls naturally look for the fun in any situation, and are often the people who are easiest to talk to and the ones folks enjoy spending time with, while perfects like to be meticulous and organized, and dislike any disruption to their pre-set schedules and routines. Peacefuls like harmony, and usually don’t like competitive, challenging environments that are fear based. I’m a peaceful-playful, so a highly competitive, insensitive, challenging environment doesn’t work for me. Rather than being inspired, I get angry at the strife and unpleasantness, and can become hostile and angry, or even shut down entirely. Powerful personality types, on the other hand—and particularly powerful-perfect types—may love a challenging, insensitive, fear-based culture.

I noticed that within my current work group, powerfuls are the dominant personality type. Fortunately, the company at large has a more balanced array of personalities, so the culture is not what’s described at Netflix, though there often is an emphasis on asceticism rather than enjoyment. There sometimes can be a suspicion of work processes that aren’t hard enough, and a tendency to frown on the idea that a solution to a work challenge can not only solve the problem, but make life easier for employees at the same time. The idea that in the process of meeting a work challenge, you also might make processes easier for employees is cause for suspicion.

Companies need to decide at the top the dominant culture they want in their workplace, including the types of personalities they want to manage and hire as new employees. Ideally, you want a company with a fair distribution of all four personality types, but in practice, companies lean more heavily in one direction than others in the personality types they attract and support. If the leaders of your company decide they want a competitive, insensitive, challenging, slightly-to-fully fear-based culture, then hire mostly powerful-perfects, and you’ll have no problem. However, if you think your company will do best with more playfuls, peacefuls, and perfects than powerfuls, the fear-based approach isn’t going to work for you.

Deciding what the dominant personality of your workforce is going to be is partly based on who your company’s leaders are, and partly needs to be based on the kind of work you are tasked with. For example, if you are in a production-based business in which most of the employees are not customer facing, and you rely most of all on efficiency and quality of output to succeed, then a company composed of powerful-perfect types would work for you. In that environment, the challenging, fear-based approach might do well. But if you are in a creative and/or customer-facing industry such as advertising, most kinds of publishing, or entertainment, you’re going to have many people like me—the peaceful-playfuls and peaceful-perfects—who aren’t going to thrive with a fear-based approach.

What do you want the dominant personality of your organization to be? Once you make that decision, are you prepared to focus on hiring the kind of people who will succeed with your management approach?


Training magazine is the industry standard for professional development and news for training, human resources and business management professionals in all industries.