Most business and organizational leaders treat their customers respectfully. So can you think of any business leaders that use harshness, force or coercion with their customers? The first example that comes to mind is organized crime. We could probably look through law suit records to find other examples. Why do the majority use with customers behaviors in the respect domain rather than the coercion and force domain? Perhaps their experiences have proven interactions with customers more effective this way? Adults working with children to teach leadership will also find respect far more effective than force and coercion.


So with the same principle in mind, now lets change the perspective from customers to staff. How do most business and organizational leaders treat their own staff? Is respect or coercion more effective in leading others, whether kids or adults? What types of behaviors are involved and what are the consequences? This article discusses these issues in an effort to persuade leaders to use more effective means to get their ends. Let’s address the two ends of the spectrum clearly, allowing that there are gradients in between and that leaders don’t always stay in one area.

Regardless of the choice of using respect or coercion, a required condition is that you clearly articulate what performance is desired. This condition is a whole other subject that is beyond the scope of this article. So you stated what you want the other person to do. Let’s start with a look at the force/coercion domain since human history is so filled with examples of this type of leader behavior. In this domain, let’s look at (a) the behaviors typically demonstrated, (b) the results to the individual and to the organization, and (c) the speed of occurrence. It has been said that many people, after noticing a real or seemingly real differential in power, unfortunately tend towards force and coercion. Compare your own experiences to this statement. What does the child see?

Coercion Domain

The types of behaviors typically observed in the fear / coercion domain include:

  • Threatening. Business leaders can threaten to terminate their job. Adults threaten children with any number of negative consequences. To be clear, threatening is the act of intimidating a another person to make them do something.
  • Although not seen often in the commercial sector in the United States, physical force is sometimes used. Tragically, this happens more from adults towards children than in the business world.
  • Another means of force is criticism, ridicule, and blame. Verbal abuse or harassment includes yelling at people in lower hierarchical position than the leader, regardless of their age. This can include taunting the other person, baiting them to get frustrated and retort emotionally (the body’s stress response enters alarm stage and releases adrenaline which triggers the fight-or-flight response), and then using ‘boss’ position power to correct the person for inappropriate or overly ‘emotional’ response. Perhaps even giving them a lecture on emotional intelligence. This type of force includes criticism and sarcasm. Although in some social cultures sarcasm may seem benign, it is defined as witty language used to convey insults or scorn. Sarcasm inherently insults. It is especially damaging to any relationship or emotional bond between a coaching adult and a child.
  • Another use of force to compel compliance is verbally demeaning others, intentionally inflicting injury or discomfort on another person through words or name calling.
  • Another use of force is bullying. This is a form of harassment perpetrated by an abusive leader who possesses, or perceives themselves to possess, more power (physical, organizational, or social). Bullying is repeated, health-harming mistreatment, verbal abuse, or conduct which is threatening, humiliating, intimidating, or that interferes with work or some combination of these.
  • Subtle methods of coercion include manipulation. For example, parents sometimes do this with guilt trips. Although effective in short term, manipulation is not conducive to rearing the most capable adults or future adult leaders.

Let’s now consider the results of such leader behavior choices and how effective these behavior choices are. Let’s consider first, individual consequences, and second, organizational consequences.

Individual Consequences

  • Behavior can be forced in the short run. Force and coercion do typically provide immediate responses. That is why some people in leadership positions use it. “Jump when I say jump means now.” Force can ensure that people will behave in a certain way in the short term, but will cause resentment and provoke resistance. Leaders may employ it briefly or consistently. However in the long run, it always proves less effective than respect.
  • Force and coercion wears people down emotionally over time. Individuals who are persistently subjected to abusive behavior are at risk of stress related illness. The body’s second stage of stress response is called resistance. If the stressor persists, the recipient’s body attempts various means of coping with the stress. Although their body may try to adapt to the strains or demands of the environment, their body cannot keep this up indefinitely, so its resources are gradually depleted. Exhaustion is the body’s next stage of stress response. Here, all of the body’s resources are eventually depleted and the body is unable to maintain normal function. If extended in duration, long term damage may result as the capacity of glands, especially the adrenal gland, and the immune system are exhausted and function is impaired resulting in illnesses such as ulcers, depression, diabetes, trouble with the digestive system or even cardiovascular problems. We don’t want this for adult followers or for children learning leadership.
  • Force and coercion erodes confidence, increases anxiety, discourages, brings despair, aimlessness, doubt and disappointment, all of which may cause recipients to give up. Children are especially susceptible to giving up.
  • At a minimum coercion frustrates people of all ages. Ask employees. Ask teenaged children in an overly controlling home environment.
  • Negative behaviors increase uncertainty and keep organizational members off balance. Children need security for normal development. Even adults tend not to like constant uncertainty.
  • Leads to a decreased sense of control.
  • It reduces dignity as human beings.
  • Insulting or putting down others or belittling others causes “hidden hurts” that break down self-esteem and cause emotional distress.
  • Great damage is done through criticism, blaming, and fault-finding. A constant stream of criticism and disapproval sours relationships between people and organizations.
  • Verbal abuse is force and no less damaging psychologically than physical force.

Organizational Consequences

  • Just like stressors that wear down the individual’s system over time, the same principle applies to organizations in their life cycle. Reinforcing loops occur, to use systems thinking terms, that negatively spiral into a worse and worse situation for the organization.
  • In businesses, professional managers have an obligation to the shareholders to improve the return on investment. Intentionally or unintentionally draining the organization of its valuable human resources is not what backers / investors / sponsors expect of leaders in organizations they support.
  • In groups or teams of children the effect is often similar but faster. Additionally, with children there is a chance that some of them may think this example is the ‘right’ way to lead, causing future misery for others that have to follow them. Adults tend to know when a person is a jerk.
  • Interpersonal goodwill stocks get depleted with staff and potentially with customers. Just as lying becomes hard to manage individually and eventually spills over into other areas that were not intended, so too does force and coercion tactics in leadership behaviors.
  • Such negative behaviors hinder personal growth of organizational members. The rate of change (flow) of this consequence is gradual, so may not be noticed until the stocks are depleted enough to impact the business or organization.
  • Force and coercive behaviors from the leader conditions people, systematically desensitizatizing others throughout the organization. This increases the chances that this type of negative behavior will spread further in the organization like a cancer.
  • It weakens appropriate social skills in the recipients and the leader dishing this out, potentially impacting customers because people tend to perform in the crucial moment the same way they’ve practiced performing. Some customer-facing roles may inadvertently treat customers as the leader treats organizational members. Customers can walk away, reducing repeat business.
  • Weakened social skills in children undermine their future leadership effectiveness.
  • Other organizational members tend to follow the leader’s behavioral example. They turn around and use coercive power on those with less power than themselves. This result is perhaps an unintended consequence. When others begin to perpetuate negative behaviors, the system reinforces and grows this type of behavior. It is well known in the field of management that “people rarely rise above their leadership.” This consequence is also described by systems thinking as a negative reinforcing loop.
  • Such behaviors result in higher turn-over in the organizational membership. There are typically costs associated with that turnover, even in volunteer or youth organizations. At the minimum, the organization has to retrain replacements, providing inconsistent organizational capacity and taking time and attention away from growing the business or accomplishing the collective purposes of the organization. Again, backers / investors / sponsors / and parents generally select the leaders to advance the organization.
  • The organization is not likely to get the best from the people participating. Individual’s discretionary energy gets applied elsewhere where the psychological rewards are higher.
  • As word begins to travel about the negative behavior, the organization may not be able to attract top talent.
  • Backers / investors / sponsors / parents may take their money / influence / support elsewhere if the leader doesn’t retain their confidence. Alternatively, these groups may replace the leader outright.
  • The receiving person will likely build up deep resentment and anger over a period of time towards the leader and the organization. Fear and insecurity may keep these feelings from surfacing immediately. Ultimately, it creates a very fragile organization which the receiving person may tolerate as long as possible and then just leave in despair or anger. If the people do stay with the organization, these deep feelings take a long time to heal with consistently improved leader behavior. The principle here is the law of the harvest. You reap what you sow. Another applicable expression is “An ounce of prevention or a pound of cure.” Many people are slow to forgive leaders for such behaviors even when the leader wasn’t aware of the impact of their behavior. It may necessitate replacement of the leader for the organization to recover from these behaviors if they were egregious.
  • Such a situation is a fertile breeding ground for depression and apathy on the one hand, and for subtle, hidden retaliation on the other. Neither situation is conducive to an organization getting its best results regardless of the metrics employed to define success (e.g. financial, key performance indicators, market share, number of transactions, etc.)
  • The leader sincerely may not perceive a problem, and the person they lead is too timid or frightened to make the problem clear until the working relationship becomes irreparable.
  • In the USA, some high school students subjected to such behaviors have snapped and brought weapons to the workplace/school and shot others in retaliation. This may not apply to other organizations, but it points out the violent response that can be provoked.

How fast do these results happen? It differs. The compliance and submission behaviors happen quickly. The negative consequences, however, arrive little-by-little, not all at once. This delay in consequence feedback actually can encourage continued use of negative behaviors. It is analogous to spending the principle of your investments in addition to the interest. You seemingly get what you want in the short term, but leave yourself in a worse position in the long term. No one may see the “hidden” damage until it has grown to the point of causing second and third order effects.

Unfortunately, force and coercion behaviors do work. History is full of examples that testify to this. The catch, so to speak, is the timing. These behaviors work for short periods of time only. Because they seem to work quickly, they are seductive methods to many leaders. But the evidence in the turnover rates, the stories told by people leaving, (including children leaving their homes early) told to anyone who will listen, and objective observation all indicates that when you shift your perspective to the longer term, force and coercion are not effective because of the negative consequences they bring. Some leaders seem to get away with it because they use these negative behaviors for a short while and then move on to other organizations, leaving the legacy of negative consequences for the next leader that takes their place.

So if the less effective behaviors work in the short term, but the consequences may not seem to justify their use, what else is there? Let us consider the respect domain at the other end of the behavioral spectrum. Similarly, let’s look at (a) the behaviors typically demonstrated, (b) the results to the individual and to the organization, and (c) the speed of occurrence.

The Respect Domain

Respect as I mean it is not the same as obedience or submission to the leader’s will. I’m talking about means to an end, not the ends. Obedience is typically the end sought by leaders demanding respect. Typically ends are consequences of the means. Behaviors in this domain are not typically accompanied by immediate responses, but are more of an investment for a desired future state. Leaders that only care about expediency in the short term may not foresee or visualize the future state. Leaders whose formative experiences involved the force and coercion domain, by observation or as recipients of such behaviors, also may have no basis from which to trust that respect domain behaviors can lead to a better future for individuals and the organization.

The types of behaviors typically observed in the respect / choice domain include: * They get results. * Set a positive example in all that you do. Leaders communicate much by example. Intended or not, example tells others much about you. Behavioral scientists call it modeling. Others recognize it simply, as setting the example. The most important influence you have on those you lead is the example you set. Your example provides indirect influence in all that you do. You are on stage all the time. People are watching you whether they tell you so or not. Your character (integrity, maturity, and abundance mentality) identifies to your suppliers, those you lead, those to whom you are accountable (management, board, owners, parents, etc.) and your customers, whether or not you are trustworthy. * Clearly articulating performance standards. * Holding people accountable for meeting those standards or commitments. * Leaders and members are courteous and polite while applying accountability. * Honoring organizational members. Because this is less common, it may not be understood what is meant. To clarify, consider how Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Mother Teresa showed respect towards others and were shown respect in return by many. Honoring leaders care about those in their stewardship. Those they lead choose to contribute because the leader is honored by them. * When people perceive their leaders to be honorable, they more easily trust them, indeed can be inspired by them, are more likely to engage or believe deeply in the goals communicated by them, and are more open to being led by them. * Honor (from the Latin word honos, honoris) is the evaluation of a person’s trustworthiness and social status based on that individual’s words and actions, which are the physical manifestation of their thoughts. Accordingly, individuals are assigned worth and stature based on the harmony of their actions, code of honor, and that of the society at large. * The leader provides direction through modeling and vision, often motivating through caring and inspiration, to build complementary teams based in mutual respect. To seed mutual respect throughout their organization, the leader must start with themselves and their own behavior towards all around them. * Respect is not about overlooking lack of performance so the followers feel good. It is not wishy-washy or softie. It involves setting high expectations for performance, and checking that the performance met the standard or that it is done again until it meets the standard. Respecting the dignity of others does not mean getting all soft and mushy or allowing staff to behave in inappropriate ways without consequence. Balancing both tasks and relationships with the people involved is the leader’s job. Both need attention. All task and no relationships makes for a sour place that people tend to leave. All relationship and no task will surely disappoint backers / investors / sponsors who expect collective results led by their appointed leader. * In the respect domain, one pattern in use is (a) preparing the situation to support the leadership task, (b) inviting those they lead to make commitments to accomplish specific ends using their knowledge and skills, and (c) following up to help them grow and to ensure the task is accomplished. * Leaders in the respect domain use sustained proactive influence. * Often those they lead believe in the same organizational values. * Leaders invite contribution. * Leaders provide guidance, listen, and respond, all aimed at helping the individual develop self-government. * Leaders in the respect domain offer a constructive alternative if a critique of another’s plan is necessary. * Leaders in the respect domain tend to know their staff and look out for their wellbeing. They care for them. They behaviors indicate they value other human beings. They tend to learn and understand what makes others tick. These leaders tend to learn what is important in the lives of those they lead. These leaders tend to commit the time and effort to know those they lead. * Respect domain leaders are sought out for advice and counsel. The small matters accumulate to shape how they are perceived by others. * Leaders hold the individual accountable for their work. * Leaders express adequate appreciation. * Leaders are willing to be presided over by the next level of leaders, or by backers / investors / sponsors. They don’t consider themselves “above the law” or above the performance standards set for those they lead. * Enabling organizational members. This includes anticipating needs and make them aware of available resources, not doing it for them. It means they keep staff informed so those they lead know enough context to helps them make decisions and execute plans within the leader’s intent. These leaders tend to encourage initiative within specific boundaries. To build their bench strength, whenever possible these leaders tend to explain the reasons for their decisions. Those they lead learn from these explanations in context and can eventually anticipate mostly correctly what the leader would have them do in various situations. * Leaders in the respect domain often try to develop a sense of responsibility in those they lead. Delegation shows trust. They tend to give challenges and responsibilities their staff feel they can handle. They give them more when they show they are ready. They teach, coach, and counsel. They appropriately supervise (not too much, or too little) and evaluate. * In showing respect, you often get respect in return. This is much more effective than demanding respect (or perhaps incorrectly equating respect with obedience or submission). * Leaders demonstrate interpersonal tact and diplomacy. * They create a positive environment. * Leaders that form bonds of trust with those they lead are more effective with these people. Trust lubricates most human interactions. Who they are and what they do helps form personal bonds with those around them. Their actions are perceived as virtuous conduct, and honor is given by those they lead and influence. * Although not always the case, leaders can direct organizations they lead to stand for something good so the members feel more dignified, and elevated above their own self interest to a higher purpose outside themselves, worthy of commitment, giving additional meaning to their individual lives and energy to the collective purpose. >This evokes the old story of the two workers toiling outside of a huge new structure. The first one was exhausted and disengaged and uninspired. “What are you working on?” he was asked by a passerby. “I’m cutting some stones,” was the curt reply. The other worker was then asked the same question. “Sorry, can’t speak too long,” was the passionate response, “I’m in the process of building a cathedral.”

Let’s now consider the results of such leader behavior choices and how effective these behavior choices are. Let’s consider first, individual consequences, and second, organizational consequences.

Individual Consequences

  • Builds people up. Strengthens people. Nurtures people.
  • Organizational bench strength is increased over time.
  • Human goodwill stocks are increased.
  • Enhanced confidence.
  • Dignity as human beings strengthened.
  • A respectful, sensitive attitude often brings a positive response from the other person.

Organizational Consequences

  • Attracts more Backers / Investors / Sponsors that bring their money / influence / support to the organization.
  • Reputation spreads making it easier to attract top talent.
  • Increases satisfaction and engagement. The organization gets more from the people. They apply more of their discretionary energy (analogous to discretionary money) toward organizational goals.
  • Organizational capacity is strengthened as staff grows individually in knowledge and skill.
  • Effectively led organizations can respond better and faster to environmental shocks from external forces.

Speed of occurrence (system flows)

  • Little-by-little, Not all at once.
  • Because it takes time to see the return on investment, some discard these behaviors as non-effective for them personally.

In conclusion, leadership effectiveness is an results-multiplier for organizations. All of the parts are more than the whole. Well led organizations can get more done than those not led effectively. Allowing time for the returns on the positive behaviors to feedback is worth it over longer periods of time. Leaders have control over their choices only, not the consequences that follow those choices. Regardless of what cultural background you come from and whether force or coercion behaviors are acceptable to others in the larger organization or society around you, you can be more effective with almost all human beings by recognizing their worth and treating them with respect. Holding people accountable for their commitments/assignments is another topic, and this can be done firmly with respect.

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KW Lanham



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