Leadership: No Place For Scaredy-Cats

Many of us turn into scaredy-cats and refuse to confront an employee or a colleague who is abrasive or even abusive. We delude ourselves with stories about the situation to justify why we don’t address the bad behavior

“She’s the very BEST technically—but she sure doesn’t tolerate fools!”
“You can either be everyone’s friend or you can make money—this guy makes money.”

Our brains kick into high gear to create such fiction even though we know plenty of people who are technically excellent AND collegial. This is our brain doing its primitive job, magnifying threat and moving us toward safety. I pay particular attention when I hear that someone “doesn’t tolerate fools.” This means a toxic individual has license to decide who the fools are and to treat them disrespectfully.

As leaders, it helps to recognize these self-protective instincts so that we can make a conscious choice to override them. When you find yourself excusing bad behavior ask yourself: “Do I want to obey my twitchy amygdala or do I want to protect high performers and the organization?” Most likely we’re getting paid to use our pre-frontal cortex (PFC) —that brain upgrade where evaluation, decision-making, understanding, prioritization, and impulse inhibition happen. Most likely, we know it’s our job to walk into the fire, not run away from it. And—most likely—we are in a leadership position to create an excellent environment where our high performers can do their best work and where our clients are well-served.

Here are three workplace clues that avoidance (primitive programming) is trumping our intellect (pre-frontal cortex) and allowing us to dodge our leadership responsibility:


There is a saying, “Respect is like oxygen—we don’t notice it until it’s gone—and then we think of little else.”  Is there someone at work who is allowed to treat others disrespectfully?  If so, the boss is allowing that person to sabotage the workplace and steal money. How so? When people are treated disrespectfully they feel threatened and their ability to think and use their pre-frontal cortex is short-circuited.  They can’t do the job you have hired them to do.  Their ability to process information, prioritize, or focus is degraded.  Most of us can recall a time when we were criticized, insulted, or treated rudely.  We ranted to colleagues hoping to elicit their outrage, we wrote and rewrote emails, and fantasized about what we should have said.  This is workplace “road rage”—a hijack of intellect that steals time and energy and makes it impossible to be thoughtful, creative, and productive.

  1. FEAR

Are people afraid of someone at work?

Not everyone will fess up that they are afraid because it is a humiliating admission.  Fear means that colleagues and direct reports:

  • Won’t knock on his door
  • Won’t ask him for anything
  • Won’t correct him when he’s wrong
  • When he attacks no one protects the victim

If meetings are largely silent—that is fear.  Colleagues turn into wary spectators waiting to see which topic will activate the tyrant. Or which comment will trigger the sniper into taking deadly aim. Since meetings are central to communication and decision-making, fear will gut a team’s productivity, creativity, and problem solving. It will also gut the credibility of the leader who merely watches while people are harmed.


A team will develop convoluted paths to get work done without disturbing the toxic or incompetent employee.  Workers become oblivious to the paths they have created.  When the team is blind to the extra steps that have evolved to accommodate a poor performer all it takes is fresh eyes to reveal the work-arounds. A new hire or a consultant comes in and says “Wait. Why isn’t SHE handling that?  It’s her job, right?”

Does this matter?  Yes—employee dissatisfaction infects customers, wrecks reputations, and drives undesired turnover. (In contrast to desired turnover: as in the toxic or incompetent employee mentioned above.)  Most companies don’t even come close to tallying up the costs of turnover. Or the costs of fear.  Or of work-arounds.

Our herd animal ancestry and primitive brain help explain aversion to conflict and discomfort with dicey people situations.  But leadership roles demand we tamp down our limbic system and use our updated operating system—our prefrontal cortex.  The first step is to acknowledge and have a little compassion for our scaredy-cat tendencies. The next step is to dial into our sense of purpose so we can:

  • Prioritize the high performers
  • Prioritize clients, customers and community
  • Use our values in decision-making
  • Understand, embrace, and use performance management skills
  • Recognize and inhibit our own avoidance

When leaders address their tough people-problems they re-energize meetings, get the right people doing the right work, increase discretionary effort, and create impressive business outcomes. And there is no doubt that when leaders create a safer work environment they crank up their own credibility and value. So, there is every reason to overcome your scaredy-cat instincts, and don’t allow disruptive individuals to hijack emotions, harm high performers, and unplug the super computers of good people.


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Patty Fahy

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