Is Fear a Motivator?

fear2At an executive retreat, one leader asked why it was that he performed best when he was stressed and felt the pressure of failure. He elaborated that when felt threatened, his team seemed to do well. This was in the context of my sharing that fear was a collaboration and innovation killer. I responded by telling him of a well-known professional athlete who asked me the same question a few years ago. He also said that when he felt angry and hate towards his opponent, he performed better. He had come to see me because his public relations reputation was that of a ‘bad boy’ who was mean to everyone including his sponsors. I asked him only one question: When do you turn it off?

No question that fear is a powerful motivator. Fear of losing your job by having your boss be unhappy with you can drive most to do whatever it takes to get the desired outcome. Let there be no question to this also – fear as a motivator is not sustainable. It is at best a very short term motivator. What is worse, is that fear as a motivator has dozens of consequences that can have very long term and irreparable consequences. Everything from damaged relationships, personal and professional, to damaged health, emotional and physical, to even unethical or illegal actions. Fear is a dangerous fire to use proactively. It many cases it naturally exists with new competition or a bad quarter of earnings which can have the same unintended consequences as if it were proactively inserted as the executive had stated in his question. A good leader will use the organic fear of performance to bring cross functional talent together, break down historical barriers and install long-overdue but necessary changes.
This week, think about all the pressures you and your team are under. Consider the behaviors of your key talent and what the role of fear has been both historically and currently when trying to deliver under pressure. Ask yourself if that is sustainable. Ask yourself what the consequences are – intended and unintended? You will find that by leveraging fear collectively in the short term, you and your team become more resilient to future pressures. That professional athlete I spoke of is winning more now without fear … and is happier!

One response to “Is Fear a Motivator?

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