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Fear as a Motivator

This morning, I received the following comment on a blog interview.  The notion that fear is a motivator is common and I thought you might find value in reading the discussion thread.

AA-Sampang Riyard Posted:
I disagree….I use the fear of disappointment and fear of failure as a major motivator. I have real expectations for my subordin…ates and they know that if they don’t work to meet those expectations they are not going to be relied upon in the future and they will eventually lose their position on the best team in our organization; they can go be complacent on someone else’s team. I don’t want people to work for me that don’t have an internal fear of failure, that won’t work hard to exceed standards, that won’t go out of their way to support the team in achieving our mission…and I don’t want anyone who is complacent or ignorant enough not to be afraid of failure…if they aren’t afraid of failing, then our goals aren’t challenging enough or they don’t have an understanding of the situation or the mission requirements…I don’t take missions that are 100%. It’s my job to create the environment and give them the tools to avoid failures, and it is my job to support them when they have an honest failure.

Laurie Cure Response:
Happy Thanksgiving. I want to offer a couple of thoughts (and I will try not to write another book). I think our perspectives are actually in alignment. First, I would like to genuinely acknowledge and applaud your leadership. It sounds as if you have built a team of high performance, which is not easy to do. What I notice in your post, more than fear, is your ability to motivate your team through the establishment of “real expectations”, challenging work (as demonstrated in your statement about “exceed standards”), and strong levels of support. I also appreciated your statement, “it is my job to create the environment and give them the tools to avoid failures, and. . . to support them when have an honest failure”. As I consider those statements, what I actually see is a leader who moves their people through fear and helps them get to the other side of fear so they can perform.

There are several items worthy of consideration. First, is that fear, along with all emotion, operates along a continuum. More extreme levels of fear are driven by threat, uncertainty and a sense that one has little control over their circumstances. In these situations, I will argue (and research will support) that fear decreases motivation, performance, creativity and drive. It paralyzes us and we can’t function to our fullest potential. If we believe this, then what leaders can do in teams and organizations is to shift these three variables. To move people from fear, we must decrease the threat level. We do this is 2 primary ways.

1. Provide employees with more certainty around the situation they are in. The best way to do this (as I discuss in my book), is to establish clear expectations. This appears to be exactly what you actually do with your team to get them to perform to higher levels. Accountability and excellence are derived from the establishment of high expectations.

2. Allow employees more control over their circumstances or situation. The more individual control leaders provide their teams, the less fear they experience. As a side note, this is also critically important for accountability.

While this argument might seem to be a matter of semantics, it is an important distinction. As we shift these variables, we actually move into a different emotional experience along the continuum. What I see you doing in your leadership is not leading with fear, but rather offering challenge. You have provided enough support and clarity in expectations that you reduce the uncertainty thereby moving your team from fear to challenge. Employees can function and actually thrive in environments where they are challenged. They cannot perform effectively in environments of fear.

The last item I want to comment on is your statement about fear of failure. This is a common fear. In my research and with those I work with (including myself), when there is a deep seeded fear of failure, they become stuck and paralyzed. People will stay in positions that they have outgrown instead of pursuing new roles, they will only perform to requirements instead of going above and beyond and their level of innovative thinking decreases.
In my mind, there is a big difference between leading with fear and motivating employees through high expectations and natural consequences (i. e., your point that they are not relied upon in the future). What I might propose, is that rather than encouraging a fear of failure, you are actually practicing strong leadership by establishing solid, high expectations (the first step in my accountability model), creating environments of support and offering the resources people need to be successful. When I consult with clients, I am seeking the exact outcomes you state: excellence, challenge, motivation, and courage. However, when individuals are in a state of fear, they cannot come forward with these skills. They must actually release the fear in order to step into a greater space.

I would love to continue to the discussion if you have additional thoughts.

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Laurie Cure

Dr. Laurie Cure holds a Ph.D. in industrial and organizational psychology and a master’s degree in business administration. She is the president and CEO of a growing consulting company; Innovative Connections, Inc. Laurie has over twenty years’ experience in helping small businesses and larger organizations on their journeys toward excellence. She also teaches at the university level and delivers seminars and lectures on organizational psychology and personal development. She lives in Colorado with her husband of nineteen years and their eighteen-year-old son and sixteen-year-old daughter.

What Others are saying about Innovative Connections

Laurie’s work around fear was instrumental for our team. We provided a workshop and used the book as a leadership book study. It opened up conversations that never would have occurred otherwise and has changed our culture.

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