Fear Can Be A Powerful Motivator


This is a “dark side” topic that no one likes to discuss, but fear works as a motivator. Few of us like the idea of feeling fearful in the workplace. But what we like and what motivates us are not the same.

Ever studied harder for an exam for fear of doing poorly, or worried about doing something that would draw your parents’ ire? If you answer yes, you’re on your way to admitting this essential truth: We engage in a lot of behaviors, and refrain from others, out of fear.

Too often in organizational behavior we sing this happy song that when employees are happy, they will give their best effort and the company will sail along in smooth seas.

The truth is that when a manager adopts this philosophy, often people relax. They take off early. They “shoot the breeze” more and work a little less. George Cloutier, founder of American Management Services, is realistic about this. “The concept that if you love your employees they’ll perform is on the edge of insanity,” he says.  “Fear is the best motivator.”

Employees should realize that in today’s competitive environment, they have to bring their A-game to work each and every day. And managers need to closely monitor them to make sure that’s the case. Instilling in employees a fear that if they shirk, they’ll lose their jobs, is one way to accomplish that monitoring. Without fear, people would do as they wish, and that rarely includes working hard if they feel they don’t have to. Like it or not, that’s the cold, hard truth about employee motivation.



How cynical! Fear is a natural emotion, but it generally serves a purpose only in crisis situations. Those unfortunate enough to work under a manager who consciously uses fear to “motivate” behavior will leave as soon as they can or get even in some hidden way. Fear never works as a motivational tool. Various areas of research in psychology and organizational behavior prove the point.

Fear generates a “fight-flight-freeze” response, in which an individual (or animal) experiencing fear or extreme stress is forced to choose one of these behaviors.  Any sane manager wants none of them.   Imagine supervising Chris who flees work when fearful or stressed, Sanjay who fights with others when he feels cornered, and Mercedes who locks up whenever she is chastised. Does effective management mean eliciting these behaviors?

One workplace expert noted, “Fear motivation always results in inner anger and resentment against the person using the fear tactics…Fear motivation is the lowest form of motivation and usually results in ‘when the cat is away, the mice will play’.” So, ironically, fear actually undermines performance monitoring, because employees will get even when they know they can’t be caught. And they will never go out of their way to help the organization.

As one Canadian manager noted, “Exercising unilateral power [through fear] can be effective for those leaders whose modest ambitions are matched by the modest successes that such tactics bring.” Zappos founder Tony Heisch, who tries to create a happy work environment at Zappos by giving employees the sense that they are part of something bigger, argues that inspiration is a much better motivator than fear.

Fear may motivate short-term performance, but in the long run, it is always a losing motivational tool.


Source: K. Pattison, “Fire Your Relatives. Scare Your Employees. And Stop Whining.” New York Times (February 11, 2010), p. B8; L. Mignone, “How to Build an Army of Happy, Busy Worker Bees,” Fortune (May 23, 2011), downloaded May 25, 2011 from www.fortune.com; TTI Performance Systems, “Provide a Climate for Motivation,” downloaded May 25, 2011, from http://www.nielsongroup.com/; J. Wood, “Stories, Not Data, At Heart of Human Motivation,” Vancouver Sun (May 20, 2011), downloaded May 25, 2011 from http://www.vancouversun.com/.

Photo by Kevin Shorter