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Are You a Fear-Based Leader? Unveiling the Link Between Fear-Based Management and Childhood Trauma Leaders who lead through either control or people-pleasing do so for reasons that can be traced back to childhood trauma. Self-recognition of these patterns is the first step toward breaking fear-based management cycles in favor of influencing healthier work environments for everyone.

By Kelly L. Campbell Edited by Micah Zimmerman

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

In the realm of leadership, fear-based management has long been recognized as a destructive approach that stifles creativity, productivity and employee engagement. Yet, many managers still cannot get out of their own way.

Little attention has been given to understanding the underlying psychological roots of this management style, which is one likely reason for its pervasiveness within organizational leadership across sectors. Couple that with the cult of toxic work environments, tracing back as far as the 16th Century Protestant work ethic through to the Industrial Age, then reinforced by 1980's consumerism and the early 2000's tech startup boom. More than two decades later, we're still at it — although the tide is finally starting to turn because the pandemic has forced many to be honest about their interiority.

Fear-based management may manifest as a consequence of childhood trauma, shaping so-called leaders into individuals who either control or people-please to manage their own fears. Of course, all of this is either subconscious or entirely unconscious. I have yet to meet a low-conscious leader who is self-aware enough to make this correlation themself.

Related: 9 Ways to Conquer Fear and Realize Your True Potential

Understanding childhood trauma

Childhood trauma encompasses experiences of adversity during early developmental years, leaving lasting emotional and psychological imprints. Such significant trauma can range from abuse and neglect to witnessing violence or experiencing parental divorce, as examples. Personal distressing events that disrupt our coping abilities, including those that are continuous over some time, are just as impactful.

The grip of childhood wounding extends well into adulthood, affecting individuals' behavior, emotions and overall well-being. It's time to shed light on how leaders' past experiences may influence their tendencies to control or overplease people in the workplace.

Related: 5 Fears All Entrepreneurs Face (and How to Conquer Them)

The connection between fear-based management and past trauma

Leaders who exhibit fear-based management tendencies often do so as a defense mechanism developed during their formative years. For those who experienced controlling or abusive environments, their fear of helplessness manifests in a need to exert control over others. By micromanaging and demanding unwavering obedience, these leaders attempt to maintain a sense of stability and power, compensating for the lack of control they felt during the time of their upbringing.

Signs of controlling behavior include excessive monitoring, reluctance to delegate and a lack of trust in subordinates.

Conversely, leaders who adopt people-pleasing tendencies as a result of childhood trauma fear rejection and disapproval. They strive to please everyone, often at the expense of their own well-being and the efficiency of their teams. These leaders may avoid conflict, suppress their honest opinions, and prioritize harmony over necessary decision-making processes, driven by the deep-seated need for acceptance that originated from early experiences of neglect or criticism.

People-pleasing leaders may exhibit an inability to assert boundaries, a fear of confrontation and a tendency to avoid making tough decisions.

Related: Could Entrepreneurship Be a Trauma Response? 5 Ways Our Emotional Past Manifests in Leadership

Overcoming fear-based management

Breaking free from fear-based management requires leaders to embark on a journey of self-reflection and healing. Recognizing and acknowledging the impact of childhood trauma is the first step. No one else can do this inner work for them. Leaders must be willing to confront their fears, develop healthier coping mechanisms and seek trauma integration modalities. Examples of these modalities include somatic practices, trauma-informed bodywork, shadow work therapy, energy healing, trauma-informed leadership coaching, nature bathing, cold plunges and sensory deprivation, to name a few that might be done in tandem. Though, I recommend cerebral resources like relevant books, podcasts and talk therapy as ideal entrances into deeper healing work.

For leaders exhibiting controlling tendencies, learning to trust and delegate tasks to capable team members can help create a more empowering and collaborative work environment. Building open lines of communication, encouraging employee autonomy and providing opportunities for professional growth are essential for breaking the cycle of control.

In the case of people-pleasing leaders, setting personal boundaries, cultivating self-esteem and fostering a culture of constructive feedback can help them overcome their fear of disapproval. By embracing assertiveness and making tough decisions when needed, leaders can foster an environment that values authenticity and healthy conflict resolution.

Fear-based management — whether rooted in control or people-pleasing — is a manifestation of trauma that can have detrimental effects on both leaders and their teams. By understanding the connection between past experiences and present behaviors, leaders can embark on a journey of self-discovery, healing and conscious leadership. Overcoming fear-based management requires a commitment to personal development and cultivating healthier leadership practices that foster trust, empowerment and collaboration. Ultimately, by addressing their own fears, leaders can pave the way for a more positive, productive and trauma-aware work environment for all.

Identifying fear-based management patterns requires a keen understanding of the leaders' behaviors and their underlying motivations. It also allows us to have compassion for the conditions in which our leaders were likely raised. In this way, we might even be able to see some similarities in our upbringings. The more we pause to reflect on our perceptions, thoughts, emotions, behaviors and words, especially as it relates to others, the more we deepen our self-awareness and empathy.

Kelly L. Campbell

Entrepreneur Leadership Network® Contributor

Trauma-Informed Leadership Coach

Kelly L. Campbell (they/she) speaks and writes about "The New TLC"—trauma, leadership, and consciousness. The author of HEAL to LEAD, Kelly is a Trauma-Informed Leadership Coach to emerging and established leaders who know they are meant for more.

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