Fear - Part 1

Originally posted 3/21/10

How much of our behavior is motivated by fear? This is a question that I've been contemplating quite a bit over the past few weeks. I certainly see it in my own actions. If I had to put a percentage on it, I would say that 60% of what I did at work was motivated by fear -- most of it an avoidance reaction. I was working through BS tasks and reporting on them, not because I saw them as important or worthwhile, but instead simply because I was avoiding criticism, complaint, public humiliation or some other negative consequence.

The ugly part of it is -- it works! Fear definitely generates energy and action. People will go to great lengths to prevent being exposed to those situations where they experience fear. I've wondered if the most successful leaders need to tap into fear in order to drive action. It certainly seems commonplace.

I've been reasonably close to three successful corporate leaders. Based on the normal judgment of the world, the most 'fear inspiring' of the three was the most successful. The least 'fear inspiring' was second most successful, with the mid-range utilizer of fear as a motivational tool being the least successful. A sample size of three, however, doesn't prove much, and all three of these men went to the 'fear well' at least on occasion.

When I further reflect on the great bosses I've had, and those that allowed me to experience the greatest level of satisfaction with my work, the number one top boss never used fear. In fact, this individual created an environment where I was his partner in trying to accomplish the company goals, rather than a subordinate who should be worried about how every expression of thought would play to him. I wanted to come in to work each day because as a team, we were engaged in fighting battles together.

I contrast that with my last position, where I felt the boss had designed a monthly 'arena event' (too much Spartacus recently, I guess), where someone was ritualistically slaughtered. The trick was to try to be uber-prepared, so that it wasn't you! Despite the fact that I didn't have to be at the company, and hence had a lot less on the line, I trembled at the onset of every one of these meetings. And I could feel the fear (and testosterone) in the air each time as well.

Most of the people in the room hated it. If anyone didn't it was because they were not really in the arena (yes, corporate staffers, I'm talking about you!). My question, after seeing so much of this in Corporate America is -- is it necessary? Is it somehow an essential element of success? In the absence of fear as a motivator, do people slack off to a degree that they are easily taken down by a hungrier competitor?

My gut says no -- it isn't a key element of success. But then why is it so common?