Shepherds. They tend their sheep daily. They guide them, rear them, and teach them. It is their duty to protect the flock and count each sheep’s lil’ fluffy head to ensure none have wandered astray. For thousands of years, shepherds have watched over their flocks with care.

I’ve heard business leaders use the analogy of shepherds and sheep when they talk about managing their workforces. The analogy can be poignant. If there’s a leader (shepherd) who cares for his or her employees (sheep), protects them, and guides them along their way in developing their skills and furthering their careers, I know I’d want to be part of that shepherd’s flock! Wouldn’t you? It sounds great!

Here’s the rub…and it’s not a fluffy one:

You can have the title of shepherd and still slaughter your sheep.

You may not intend to do it. You may even think you’re helping your sheep in some twisted way. And when I say “slaughter,” I’m not talking about literally murdering your team. If you did that, you’d be a monster.

What I’m saying is that you, as a leader, can slaughter your employees’ spirits. You criticize them, insult them, question their character, accuse them, and you couch all of it with one word of encouragement. You give “feedback” (verbal and written) like:

“We value your contributions, but you are woefully inefficient, loathsome, slothful, and your laugh is annoying.”

If you think I’m kidding, the “feedback” above is pieced together from actual statements I’ve seen or read in an annual review.

This type of “shepherding” is called many different things; fear-based leadership, abusive supervision, or destructive leadership to name a few. A meta-analysis of research on the topic conducted by Schyns & Schilling, 2012 defined destructive leadership as:

“a process in which over a longer period of time the activities, experiences and/or relationships of an individual or the members of a group are repeatedly influenced by their supervisor in a way that is perceived as hostile and/or obstructive.”

If you’ve ever been in that destructive leadership environment (I’ll call it bad shepherding), you know what it feels like despite the eloquence of the definition. And the costs of bad shepherding are staggeringly-expensive. Even dated research on the subject suggests that fear-based leadership results in costs of $23.8 billion for US-companies due to high turnover, reduced effectiveness, and employee absenteeism (Tepper, Duffy, Henle, & Lambert, 2006).

You can bet bad shepherding happens in marketing teams too – and it’s worth talking about.

I’m sure the vast majority of marketing directors and managers reading this article would agree that the “feedback” example I provided above is abusive, not constructive. But I also know there are some who will defend this tough love by saying they have a duty to “call it like it is” and “be truthful” with their employees. I can appreciate that, but my guess is that those people have never been on the receiving end of their own truth.

So here’s your dose of reality, oh mighty slaughterer of creatives:

You’re a fear-based leader. You’re a bully. People loathe you. They say they like you to your face and celebrate when you leave the building. Your presence creates anxiety in others. You are a hypocrite. You didn’t get enough love as a child. You have demons you pretend to ignore. You think your positional authority makes you the smartest person in the room. You’re a fool. You’re irrelevant. You’re not inspiring. You hurt people and think it’s love.

What? I’m just “calling it like it is”. It doesn’t feel very good, does it?

It actually pained me to craft those sharp little daggers, but they’re real sentiments I’ve collected from people I’ve worked with – managers, leaders, bosses, and those in positions of power who bastardized the shepherd/sheep analogy.

I know my colleagues aren’t alone.

I really wish I could associate fear-based leadership with a bygone era. It would be nice to discredit it as a passing fad with a, “That’s so [insert decade]’s” quip. Unfortunately, there are still plenty of so-called leaders who live for the chance to intimidate team members and minimize their value. Some studies suggest around 14% of the U.S. workforce is affected by these bad shepherds (Tepper, 2007).

A Wolf in Shepherd’s Clothing

Many companies have changed their structures and dressed up their work environments. Many have made work remotely accessible for employees, implemented slews of cool incentive/endless PTO plans, or introduced countless amenities for workers.

That’s great stuff, don’t get me wrong. But when bad shepherds get inserted into these progressive environments, no amount of complimentary fitness training sessions, free cereal bars, or food truck Fridays can save the sheep from slaughter.

What Are You Gonna Do About It?

Now, if you’re a bad shepherd and you’ve made it this far I applaud you. You may want to chop off my fingers at this point, but if you’re really paying attention and wondering what to do to curb your slaughtering ways, I may be able to help you. Even Harvard Business Review researchers recognize that it’s hard work to instill a culture of openness and listening into a traditionally fear-based workplace, but here’s what YOU can do to start working on yourself…because that’s where real change starts.

  • Don’t forget what it was like to be a sheep.
    You were there once (unless you inherited the business from your rich Daddy and have never felt like a subordinate in your life). You had no positional authority at your first job. Maybe you had no real authority for many years and over the course of many jobs. Perhaps you were trained (unknowingly) to be a bad manager by marketers who were “over” you. That’s not your fault. Those people were bad bosses. You once knew what it felt like to be essentially powerless and without much of a voice, so don’t assume that the elevated title you hold today gives you the right to abuse others. If you had a great boss, you might remember how your job title stopped carrying a lot of weight because it was the team that mattered. Regardless of whether you had a good or bad experience when you were in the sheep role, remember how impressionable you were. Now you’re the one leaving lasting impressions on your team.
  • “I know there is good in you.”
    Star Wars fans will recognize that quote, and I suppose it’s fitting. Your team may see you as a Darth Vader-type character when you’re in the office – you’re scary. So let me be your Luke Skywalker and tell you that for all the bad things people see in you, I guarantee there are some remarkably positive things you can bring to the table. Consider how you act at work versus at home with family. Are you a tyrant at home, too? If so, you have some other work to do that’s far beyond the help I can provide here. But if you know you’re a different person in different environments, ask yourself why. If you’re kind and compassionate at home, why can’t you be that way at work? Do you think you’ll lose your edge if you relax the death grip you have on your team? Why can’t you be kind while also holding people accountable for their responsibilities? Correcting behavior doesn’t have to be abusive. You don’t have to instill fear to maintain control. If you’ve been able to maintain a functional, loving, and supportive relationship with your spouse or kids, you didn’t get there by being Darth Vader. I know there’s good in you. Find it prove me right.
  • Be consistent.
    Like any change in behavior, consistency is key. You can start a workout regimen and tell everyone you’re going to lose weight, but if you stop after a week and resume sitting on the couch, no one will believe you’re serious next time you make the commitment. The same is true for you. As you take steps to absolve yourself of your sheep-slaughtering tendencies, know that your team will be a little fearful of a Jekyll and Hyde dynamic at first. They’ll probably wonder which version of you will show up each day. After all, they’re not used to a good shepherd walking through the door. Over time, however, you can change their perception. You must be both consistent and conscious. Tapping into behaviors that seem foreign to you at work requires effort, and it’s going to be hard to do this during every interaction at first. Keep the pursuit of consistency top of mind and you’ll get there.
  • Recruit accountability partners.
    This one is going to be tough for you because it means the other people get to provide feedback about your behavior instead of the other way around. Ouch. The key to this step is asking for help from people who are used to observing you at work. This may mean inviting your team to hold you accountable if you have the guts to do it. Allow them to provide honest feedback about their interactions with you (with no recourse – that’s a big deal). Opening these lines of communication will build trust between you and your marketing team if you do it right. It will also provide you with valuable insight about how people perceive you in different situations.

The creatives in your flock have value. You need to tend them and care for them. As a shepherd, it’s your long-standing duty to help those sheep get to where they need to go. It’s not your job to slaughter them along the way or toss them off a steep cliff just because you have the power to do so. In the long run, that’ll just leave you with fewer sheep or none at all…and then you’ll just be a bad shepherd without a job.

Be the good shepherd. Your sheep will not only follow, but they’ll learn to lead the rest of the flock by watching you.

And as always, if you need more insights on cultivating a great marketing team, subscribe to our newsletter.