“Just do it.” That’s what Nike’s new return-to-office mandate amounts to. The sportswear giant recently informed employees that beginning in January, they will be required to come into the company’s headquarters four days a week. The company said in a statement that there’s “power and energy that comes from working together in person,” which is a valid perspective. However, some employees fret that the policy will allow for less flexibility.

Of course, Nike is just the latest company—following Apple, Goldman Sachs, and others—to push for workers to return to the office mostly full-time. Many employees, meanwhile, are feeling under the gun. Marching employees back to their desks under threat of unemployment may look like a leadership flex, but it’s exactly the opposite.

The problem is not asking employees to come into an office per se, but rather what so often motivates the mandate. As is the case with many corporate edicts, far too many leaders are making decisions rooted in fear—fear about a of loss of control, of lack of sufficient authority, of an employee base that is insufficiently incentivized.

A recent global survey, The Love Leadership Survey, found what many employees already know: Fear is rampant in the workplace. Surveying nearly 2,500 respondents, the research showed one in three corporate managers are motivated primarily by fear. Those who are fearful themselves tend to pass it on to their subordinates, creating anxiety in workers and turning offices into places of dread. The study estimates this pervasive fear has resulted in $36 billion in lost productivity in the U.S. alone.

Fearful leaders favor stressful work environments, believing stress to be the most effective way to motivate subordinates. But they’re wrong. Fear as a motivator is misguided and counter productive. In order to create a culture of trust, loyalty, and stability, corporate leaders must shift from fear-driven leadership to “love leadership.” Here are five steps leaders can take:

Respect boundaries

Fearful leaders encourage employees to be “always on,” even if it means throwing their work-life balance off kilter.  Employees who are pushed to overcommit to their work are vulnerable to emotional exhaustion, which can lead to burnout.

When leaders establish their own healthy boundaries, employees see it. A leader who models a healthy work-life balance and communicates responsibilities clearly and consistently helps to to create a healthy and productive work environment. This creates efficiency and improves overall performance.

Acknowledge good work  

Leaders guided by fear focus on employees’ setbacks or weaknesses rather than appreciating their contributions.

A fearful leader blames the team for bad performance. If they’re frequently feeling frustrated, managers should look at their own leadership: they chose the team, have they chosen the wrong people? Or are their standards unnecessarily or unreasonably high?

Constant criticism can result in “quiet quitting” and high employee turnover. A team member who feels appreciated is more likely to view their boss as a good leader, and to want to stick around for a while.

For employee satisfaction and general office morale, it’s important to provide positive feedback, and to acknowledge when someone makes an extra effort. So often leaders forget to acknowledge and reward employees for a job well done.

Welcome feedback

A fearful leader is afraid of criticism, but a confident leader recognizes the importance of encouraging and genuinely welcoming honest employee feedback.

Try to incorporate what you learn from your workers. Employees who feel that their leaders listen to them while maintaining clear decision-making power and responding are more likely to give discretionary effort and stick around than ones who feel disrespected or ignored. More important, they may have some brilliant ideas.

Encourage collaboration

Leaders who encourage collaboration see increased levels of trust and improved performance. They help to create a more engaged and connected workforce that will boost productivity and increase satisfaction.

Breaking the cycle of fear-based leadership requires courage, self-awareness, honest communication, and compassion.

Embrace humility

Fear-based leadership relies on corporate hierarchies and mandates, instead of accepting that everyone can add value to the team, not just those at the top. This creates a staff that just does what it’s told, and nothing more.

A term I call “love leadership” embraces humility, allowing for more openness. Humble leaders are confident enough to appreciate and acknowledge the strengths and contributions of the entire team.

When it succeeds, love leadership can be a commanding shift, leading to higher performance, greater followership and more discretionary effort from the team.  Regardless of whether employees are mandated to return to the office for more of the week, they will give more if they can trust their leader to be brave, clear and fair.  True love leadership listens and responds, dealing with difficulty and challenge head on.


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