Is Fear A Good Motivator?

Posted on January 20, 2012.

There have been a lot of articles recently about stress in the workplace. Obviously one of the biggest causes of that stress is fear. Fear that the boss’s expectations won't be met, fear of losing a job in a down economy, and sometimes just the irrational, unpredictable behavior of a coworker can make you afraid to walk in the door in the morning. The question is, does this fear actually cause an employee to do anything productive?

Fear can be a warning that you need to avoid something. In the case of the scary coworker, fear can motivate you to give them a wide berth. In that case fear can help you avoid an unwanted situation, but the constant fear of not meeting expectations, or losing a job, can often be a self fulfilling prophecy.

According to psychologists, no one can thrive on negative emotions alone. Studies of emotion and performance show that your positive emotions need to out number the negative for you to be able to perform your best. In fact, your ratio of positive to negative emotions has to be between 3:1 and 5:1 for optimal performance.

So in the case where fear is a warning signal, it can be helpful if you listen to it, but constant fear does not produce people’s best work. So as a manager, being a source of fear for your employees is not a successful strategy. It is equally unsuccessful to know that the people who work for you are scared and not do anything to alleviate it. So what do you do?

If people are worried about losing their jobs because of the health of the company, you may not be able to completely put their fears to rest, but you can ratchet it down considerably by being as honest as possible and updating people frequently as things change. Likewise, if they are afraid of not meeting your expectations then making sure that they know exactly what they need to do and be very specific about how they are performing.

You can’t always take away all their fears, but communicating often and directly is your best way to make the workplace a little less scary and a little more productive in uncertain times.