“What was the primary means of motivation in those days?”
– Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks, The Two Thousand Year Old Man
For the 2000 year old man, fear may have been a very effective motivator: when he saw a lion, he was motivated to run the other way. That, in a nutshell, is the problem with fear. Fear doesn’t make someone move toward safety; it makes them move away from danger. Same thing? Not really. In jujitsu, pain can be used to invoke a fear of injury. Someone experiencing that pain, and that fear, will move away from it, even if moving away means running full tilt into the nearest tree.
In business, the same phenomenon occurs. Faced with an unexpected problem or setback, the most common response is to highlight the threat to the organization and all the terrible things that will happen if the threat is not immediately countered. This practice of attempting to motivate people to work harder through fear – fear of competition, loss of market share, job loss, company going out of business, and so forth – may encourage harder work, but not necessarily more effective work. In the business environment, there are a lot of trees.
While fear gets the adrenaline flowing, it also narrows focus, reduces creativity, and makes it harder for people to recognize and change a losing strategy. This would be fine, except that what is actually needed in most situations is a creative solution, the ability to accurately assess whether or not a strategy is working, and the ability to quickly discard failing strategies. Avoiding premature decision making, no easy task at the best of times, only becomes more difficult. As we all learned in grade school, in the event of a fire, don’t rush for the door: proceed slowly and avoid panic. The same is true in business: rushing to a decision is almost guaranteed to lead to a bad decision.
So given that the business needs to get employees focused and energized to meet a potential challenge, how should it go about doing that?
The key is to recognize that the glass in not half empty. It’s half full. That makes a difference: instead of focusing on what you lack, focus on what you have going for you. Instead of fear, instill an atmosphere of optimism. There are several steps to accomplishing this: