What melody is your executive assistant humming?

By: Editor In Chief
Thu 26 February,2015

Nicolai Tillisch_Jan22_speech
Nicolai Tillisch coaches boards and executives and is the author of the bestseller Effective Business In The Gulf. He is based in Dubai and heads the leadership consulting firm Dual Impact.


Many leaders have very good reasons for accompanying their movements around the corporate headquarters with the theme song from Jaws, since threats are an integral part of their management style. Steven Spielberg’s 1975 film would never have been as memorable without the repetitive use of a score that eats its way inexorably into the audience’s psyche.

Jaws made generations of movie watchers fear sharks, even though they only account for a handful of deadly attacks worldwide each year. Your local highway can easily surpass that track record and should frighten you much more. Meanwhile, tourists are still gripped by panic when the Jaws shark makes its mechanical jump out of the water at Universal Studios in Hollywood.


Management by threat is in no way limited to the regular booing of the lowest performer in Japanese sales organizations. The implicit theme song: “If you are the worst performer among us, then we will all humiliate you.” Half a millennium ago, Niccolò Machiavelli advised that “it is far safer to be feared than loved”. One of the most celebrated management gurus of our time, Jack Welch, practiced something called “Rank and Yank” during his reign at GE, the famous U.S. conglomerate, where employees’ performance was rated annually, and the bottom 10 percent were laid off. The theme song: “If you are not delivering results every single year, then you’re fired.” In management research, Harvard professor John P. Kotter’s most famous study concluded that you should start any successful change effort by creating a sense of urgency. This insight has motivated herds of executives to compose their own variations on frightening if/then scenarios. We live with threats every day. Even decent parents with lovely children often state that if they do not eat their dinners, they will not get the much desired dessert.

So why don’t all business leaders order their assistants to hum the Jaws theme or, for that matter, the opening of Beethoven's fifth symphony? Good old threats simply seem to be going out of fashion within management. GE started phasing out Rank and Yank shortly after Welch retired. It’s not only that Generation Y would just jump between jobs more frequently if they perceived more problems than opportunities. An increasing body of research shows that fear makes us all dumber than we are, both individually and collectively.

We are hardwired to react just like the tourists who have paid $92 to get into Universal Studios and now momentarily fear being eaten by a well-known film character. Surprises make us react faster than we can think, while sustained fear suppresses our ability to act rationally. The aggressive and autocratic behavior associated with threats makes it difficult for direct reports to relate to their manager and complicates team play among them. There is solid empirical evidence that leaders thereby diminish their effectiveness. Furthermore, most professionals are smart enough to know that they risk getting fired if they do not do their job. Briefly mentioning this in standard job contracts is adequate for most employers and employees.

So should your assistant sing Louis Armstrong's What a Wonderful World or Pharrell Williams' Happy when you come through the office? It could probably do wonders–at least, temporarily–for leaders who are out of touch with their organization. You don’t need to go soft, however, just because you refrain from threatening your way through the workday.

The opposite of threats is not promises: in many regards it is trust, which comes with its own obligations. When you, as a leader, trust your key people, you implicitly expect them to perform, which in turn requires them to dare. Yet they will never perceive you as trusting them unless you also care about them. When you care for the people who dare for you, you are playing with a powerful source of motivation. You should pay much more attention to this delicate balance than the song your assistant chooses to hum.