by Eric Samuels

There is an often-quoted and misleading notion that fear is a great motivator.

The fact is, fear is a short-term motivator and generally results in low levels of performance. But fear is a base instinct, so it’s easy to trigger and the results are predictable. Which is why it continues to be used as a method of managing behaviour within so many organizations…..kind of like managerial fast food – light on nutritional value, but quick and easy. So, many managers continue to attempt to control their subordinates with pearls like “if you can’t do it, we’ll find someone else who can.”

However, after the initial reaction to the threat stimulus, we become acclimatized to the new reality, adjusting our behaviour only as necessary. So, for fear to continue to motivate our behaviour, the threat either needs to escalate, or come at us from a different, unexpected angle.

Which is why behavioural psychologists have always maintained that fear should only be used as a last course of action – not as a primary motivational punch. In other words, when all else fails, be direct with a person – make sure that they understand that they are not performing as required, explain exactly what they need to change (detailing the time frame and measurement method), and clearly state the ramifications of failing to meet the required improvement to their performance.

But the disturbing reality, is that in this economic climate, management by fear has become more the accepted norm. With many organizations so focused on hitting financial targets, the behaviour towards employees has become short-sighted, reverting to archaic tactics – fire a loud weapon into the air, and the herd will, more or less, head in the desired direction.

The result of this management style is inevitable; an organization filled with people whose primary focus is doing the minimum required to maintain job security. There’s little initiative, no innovation (management by fear is not conducive to risk-taking), and the best of the bunch are only sticking around long enough until something better comes along. In other words – mediocrity.

Next time, a simple exercise in motivating behaviour through positive reinforcement.

  • Follow me on Twitter
  • Email Me
  • Call Me
  • Check me out on Facebook