The Real Reason Fear Won’t Motivate

There’s a danger in using fear to motivate people.

When you present a “burning platform” story to spur your people into action, there are inherent risks. People may jump into action, but will it be the right action? Will it be purposeful?

Most of the big problems we encounter in organizations or society are ambiguous and evolving. They don’t look like burning-platform situations. Yet we still want people to buckle down and execute a hard, well-defined game plan.

John Kotter writes about this in A Sense of Urgency. Fear creates anxiety and anger. And this leads to frenetic activity that is more distracting than useful.

When people are driven to act by fear rather than desire – the action isn’t motivated by any personal determination to move in a direction to win. It’s not action designed to create real results for long term success. It’s simply action, frenetic action, designed to diminish the fear and anxiety.

There’s no question that negative emotions are motivating. But they are also constricting. They narrow our focus. Fear will get us to take fast specific action designed to – news flash! – reduce the feelings of fear and anxiety.

Negative emotions will help us avoid risks and confront problems. But the quest to take our organization to the next level, that is, to execute a brilliant strategy, design quality customer experiences, and to improve team performance and the bottom line… well, that requires more than avoiding risks and problem solving.

These situations require creativity and flexibility and ingenuity. A burning platform won’t get you there. Negative emotions have a narrowing effect on our thoughts. We become focused on getting the stone out of our shoe, so to speak.

Positive feelings, on the other hand, broaden and build our repertoire of responses to a situation. Joy, for example, makes us want to play with new ideas and possibilities. We want to explore new ways of doing things, experiment and explore. In this way, we require positive emotions to fuel our creativity and curiosity.

What are you doing in your organization to use positive emotions to inspire change?

The next time someone suggests lighting a fire under your people’s feet, consider these differences. Fear and negativity will, indeed, spark people into action. But only for specific action, and not necessarily purposefully directed.

An atmosphere of positivity, on the other hand, will give people the enthusiasm to create new solutions and broaden and build resources for innovation.

To solve bigger more ambiguous problems, those we are currently facing every day, we need to encourage open minds, creativity and hope.

Your thoughts?

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