I have noticed recently that as oil prices drop and companies are squaring up to the ensuing challenges, that an alarming return to 80’s management techniques is making an ugly appearance – when fear was considered a motivator!
There is a human assumption that fear as a motivator for change has a high probability of success and that somehow we can ‘scare’ people into change. I think the thought process is, make people fall into line and they will achieve great things. When in fact the people that truly achieve great things, rarely fall in line!
This appears to stem from military-type thinking that lingers, which has left us with the remnants of a broken follow-the-leader mentality, as opposed to a co-operative mentality.
I’ve heard many motivational speakers or self-help gurus talk about how, ‘fear is a powerful motivator,’ when in essence it’s a terrible motivator, at least for the long-term.
I for one have had infinitely better experiences with the coaches and mentors who didn’t try to scare me into change, but rather helped me realise the change for myself. The most important thing there though, is that the change lasted and was sustained!
Nowhere have I been able to find good data to support the assumption that fear is a good motivator for anything other than short-term problems i.e. fleeing from a burning plane! (I have actually experienced this scenario and even then adopted a very British “will everyone calm down” approach)
It seems practical, why wouldn’t human beings do something to move them away from their fears? It may stem from the simplistic view point that human beings essentially change to move towards pleasure or away from pain, but I believe it’s much more complicated than that.
Clearly we don’t do things just to move towards pleasure or away from pain, quite often the most substantial life’s work is done in a constant battle moving towards pain or away from pleasure.
We only need to look at the lives of Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King or Gandhi. Very little about what they stood for was an attempt to move towards pleasure, but rather away from it, they all knew that they needed to challenge a conventional view-point in order to facilitate change for the longer term.
We also appear to rely on hope, social acceptance or rejection, consistency in our actions, aesthetics, satisfaction, amusement and a slew of other factors to establish our own motivation. It’s been shown numerous times actually that people make better, more long-term changes, when they move towards positive intrinsic values/beliefs, instead of moving away from the fear of punishment.
In the 1980’s, a General Motors auto factory in California had immense worker union trouble. It was notorious for a bad working environment where 20% of the work force regularly did not show up for work, and the 80% who did, were very bitter and worked away mindlessly with a huge percentage of defective cars reported. As this problem made headlines, GM took efforts to modernise the facility and reduce costs over the course of several years, yet ultimately, GM still closed the plant.
In other words, even though tremendous fear was evident in that GM would have to close the plant due to poor production quality and high costs of production, the workers still produced poor quality cars and didn’t show up to work. Foremen trying to instill fear in their workforce probably only made matters worse.
That is until Toyota swooped in from nowhere, built a new company, — affectionately referred to as Nummi — saved the work force, increased profitability, reduced absenteeism from 20% to 2% and dropped the number of defects significantly. That is to show that fear was never needed to achieve success in the Toyota Model, co-operation was a key ingredient to Toyota’s success.
The point is there is very little scientific or anecdotal evidence that fear works well as a motivator over the long-term, even in life or death situations.
It was a strange decade the eighties, I was never a fan of shoulder pads and new romantic music and I will never be a fan of fear as a motivator so let’s not go back there.