Is Fear a Motivator?

May 15, 2012

There are definitely some in management positions who think so. The rationale being that it keeps people focused on their jobs and doing the “right” things. If people fear the negative consequences for failing to perform, they’ll be motivated to give it their all, right?

Not from my experience. Fear may be a convenient motivational lever, but “management by fear” will seriously constrain organizational performance. Fear of failure in the workplace brings anxiety and stress that drains people of energy. It causes people to play it safe and avoid stretching themselves. Fear can contribute to failure because the negative feelings and related stress gets the better of people and causes them to freeze up.

Fear inhibits people from being truly engaged – in an age where we want more engagement. What are some of the things that people are scared of in the workplace? In his book, The Art of Engagement, Jim Haudan provides the following list:
  • We’re afraid that our contributions aren’t really valued.
  • We’re afraid that our personal beliefs don’t align with those of the company.
  • We’re afraid that we won’t be able to adapt to changes in the way we work.
  • We’re afraid that we won’t have a safe place to practice new skills.
  • We don’t feel that it’s safe to say what we really think.
  • We don’t think it’s safe to suggest better ways of doing things.
  • We don’t know how to disagree and not become branded “a problem.”
Managers should keep these things in mind, asking themselves if they are creating an environment that encourages people to feel safe, to talk openly without fear of reprisal, to feel connected to the company and others within the company. Barking out orders and demanding compliance may get things done, but doing so won’t engage your employees. You’ll leave untapped productivity on the table.

People can be trusted to perform far more than most management systems allow for today. A greater level of autonomy is possible – and more productive – as Agile development demonstrates. However, autonomy doesn’t mean cutting people lose and ignoring them.

In order to produce that steady stream of value, autonomous teams need to be equipped with a solid understanding of the business objectives, they need to be closer to the customer and understand the needs of the customer. And as the list above demonstrates, they need to be connected with the business in a way that makes them feel safe, valued, and trusted.

Managers who lack experience with autonomy are naturally apprehensive about it. They doubt that it will work – at least “in their environment.” They are afraid of losing control because their necks are on the line to produce. If you are in this camp, try this experiment.


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