You can inadvertently become the creepy leader. To avoid doing so, you need to know more about what creepiness actually is. Here’s an example. If you are a parent, you may have noticed in your duties as tooth fairy that you need to safely hide the teeth. In our family it was my duty to make the money-for-tooth exchange silently in the dark. Also in the darkness – but not as stealthily – I would diligently place the tooth in the hiding space my wife had designated, in the middle drawer of her jewellery case. One time in the light of day my wife fully-opened the drawer, saw the collection of teeth in all its glory, and screamed. She was creeped out by herself. We joked about making a necklace, and we laughed and laughed. They’re gone now.
Creepiness was the subject of fresh research published two years ago in the paper On the Nature of Creepiness. It’s by Francis T. McAndrew and Sara S. Koehnke in New Ideas in Psychology as of March 30, 2016. It’s only six pages long, it’s well-written, and you can download it here.
The Definition of Creepiness
They define creepiness as follows:
A mugger who points a gun in your face and demands money is certainly threatening and terrifying. Yet, most people would probably not use the word “creepy” to describe this situation. It is our belief that creepiness is anxiety aroused by the ambiguity of whether there is something to fear or not and/or by the ambiguity of the precise nature of the threat (e.g., sexual, physical violence, contamination, etc) that might be present. Such uncertainty results in a paralysis as to how one should respond. In the mugging situation, there is no ambiguity about the presence or nature of threat. [Emphasis added]
The findings from the paper come from a survey of 1341 people who ranked items on a creepiness scale. They ranked careers, behaviours, hobbies, and features of physical appearance. With some consistency, the items at the top of the creepiness scale represent an ambiguity of whether there is something we should fear.
The creepiest occupations are clown, taxidermist, sex shop owner, and funeral director. Creepy behaviours are things like standing too close, making it impossible to leave, and odd clothing or laughter. The creepy features of appearance are greasy hair, bulging eyes, long fingers, and pale skin (i.e. features that make people look like a zombie or a skeleton). Creepy hobbies include things that involve a lot of watching (such as bird watching), or collecting dolls, insects, or body parts. I mean really, who collects body parts?
It’s fascinating that creepiness, although real, is three steps removed from a matter of substance. The substantial item is harm. You take it back one step and perceive a threat, which is the intention of harm or the likelihood one will experience harm. Then you perceive the ambiguity of that threat. The final step is that this ambiguity is subjectively-felt as anxiety. So, whereas there may be material evidence of harm after it has been experienced, creepiness anticipates harm, three steps removed, has less evidence, and is hard to prove. It’s no wonder why creeps lurk in this environment.
Eliminating Creepiness in the Workplace
It’s one thing to understand creepiness in public spaces. But what does this new understanding about creepiness say about how we should behave at work? We know that leadership and organizational culture shape our environment. As a manager or human resources professional you have significant influence over several perceived risks such as health & safety, workplace cleanliness, and sexual harassment. You can also influence things that could adversely affect the employee’s economic wellbeing such as layoffs, promotions, and performance conversations. It is critical to convey a sense that you mean the best and you’re not going to sacrifice the employee’s wellbeing for your own self-interest.
There are also risks associated with the questionable use of data. If you handle data about peoples’ address, benefits claims, and participation in wellbeing programs, you should feel a great sense of responsibility. Add to that the secrets given to you by other managers about secret agendas and the organization’s direction, and you soon discover that you are truly a guardian of privileged information that can be used for good or evil.
Handling information properly can impact your reputation and how people feel about your leadership and your judgment. You need to feel that healthy sense of fear that if you mishandled something, bad things could happen. When I snuck into my children’s bedrooms at night to swap money for teeth, I was quite worried that I would be exposed as the tooth fairy and scar their innocence. I felt the weight of generations past, that I must do this one thing well.
If confidential work is done poorly, you could harm a third party, the organization, or your own career. The harm could be a matter of substance. Or it could simply be a threat to those affected. If you cannot provide credible assurances that you mean the best, then you are creating ambiguity about a threat of harm.
You can inadvertently become the creepy leader.
To avoid being creepy you need to be truthful, consistent, and transparent. Or to be precise, you need to show a competent handling of truth and transparency, as if lying and secrecy were things you only do as a duty to society. After the truth is known, will people say you did the right thing?
More than anything, trust is about advancing a sense of integrity and authenticity, that things are as they seem. A trustworthy environment allows people to forget about bad things. Trust allows people to stop spending precious work hours protecting themselves and each other. If you want people to contribute their best work and share their best ideas, they need to feel safe.
So could you please keep your story straight about the tooth fairy? Other leaders are trying to keep it together, too. We need to tell the same story. And keep that tooth collection hidden.