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As motivational techniques go, fear is highly overrated. And yet, it’s a trap most people have fallen into at one time or another. We’ve seen parents, managers, even entire governments try the “if you are frightened enough of the consequences you’ll be motivated to do the right thing” trap.

I once sat on a discussion panel with a consultant who told the audience that she thought the number one value she she provided to her clients was to keep the employees on their toes and “put a little fear into them”. I told the audience I thought the number one value I provided was to be a resource for the employees to make sure they developed competence and confidence and never had to be afraid of failure. You can imagine how disheartening it was to realize that a large percentage of the managers and employers in the room thought that hiring HER would make their lives easier.

I was, therefore, pretty disappointed in myself when I recently commented to a client that I felt some of the “dis sync” she was having with her ops manager was that this manager was “more afraid of the team than she is of her boss.” Right diagnosis, WRONG terminology. My bad.

And I’m happy to say that when my client asked “so what do I do to make her scared of me?” she was (mostly) kidding. Neither of us would want anyone on her team to be afraid of anything because fear of consequences doesn’t motivate anyone to do anything more than just enough to avoid the consequences.

And that was exactly what we were seeing in this manager; she was doing what she could to avoid certain consequences, but she was more motivated to avoid the consequences of making anyone on the team unhappy with her than she was to avoid the consequences of not meeting the business objectives. She was asking for increased budgets, pushing back on timelines and making excuses for work from herself and the team that wasn’t up to standard. The employees, motivated by a fear of failure and finding an advocate in the manager, were campaigning for a redefinition of success. And the employer, who had a fear of being unreasonable and losing employees, was torn between accepting the lowering of standards and demanding what she knew was essential to provide good value to her customers.

If you’ve read Patrick Lencioni’s The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, you’ve already guessed that this team was dysfunctional in all five areas. They didn’t trust each other enough to have conflict, in fact, the manager and the employer were both more scared of conflict with the team than they were of not meeting their objectives. They weren’t committed to their goals, in fact the buy in for their goals was so low that everyone was trying to negotiate a new definition for attaining them. Accountability was so low that everyone pointed to everyone else as the reason things weren’t getting done and the manager was pointing to the employer as the person setting unreasonable goals. So of course, no one was focused on team outcomes, they were too busy trying to protect their backsides.

Did I just overstate the diagnosis? Maybe, as with any team some days are better than others and some players better than others on any given day. But if you looked at the entire “season” that pretty well describes why they didn’t have a winning record.

In this equation everyone was motivated to do what they were doing by a fear of consequences so ALL of them were doing only what was necessary to avoid those consequences. Fear was, in fact, blocking their ability to be truly motivated toward excellence and growth. They were no longer striving to succeed, they were desperately trying not to fail.

To determine if you are building a motivated team ask yourself “what are they striving toward?” If, in fact, they are working harder to “try to avoid” than they are “striving toward” you don’t yet have a motivated team, you have a lot of scared individuals.

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