The 5  Ways You’re Relying on Fear and Don’t Even Know It

Given the choice, love or fear, nearly everyone will tell you that they choose love.  But that is not reality. Most leaders are far more addicted to the use of fear than they might like to think. 

- Jan Carlzon

Most of us, as leaders, don’t like to think that we use fear to influence performance.  But we do. In fact, the number of ways that we have invented to manipulate people using fear are truly a testament to our creativity.  Sure, the fear that we evoke by perpetuating many practices does not include a direct threat to the physical well-being of our team members.  But the fear that we perpetrate is real. And significant. And motivating in that it clearly motivates many individuals to do whatever is necessary to make that fear go away.

Using fear to get what we want may have worked well enough in the past.  But in a future where innovation is the most valuable currency, fear is the enemy.  Fear makes us dumber. It narrows what we see. It limits what we think is possible. 

We are not arguing that all fear is avoidable. Fear is evolutionarily critical.  It’s good to fear the bear in the woods or the fire in the forest. Every athlete who enters a game usually feels some fear that he or she may not perform as planned.  It is the unnecessary use of fear to control others that stands as a significant impediment to better performance in every endeavor from the classroom to the board room to the athletic field.

Fear comes in many forms.  We may not even recognize it as fear at first.  But its negative effect is unmistakable. Whether it be a fear of embarrassment, not getting ahead, becoming socially isolated, not get a reward, or of being judged or rejected, fear inhibits growth when our basic needs are threatened.  We need to feel safe and connected and appreciated and treated fairly. When we are manipulated and we feel at risk, we engage less. We trust less. We become suspicious. The energy that we might have spent learning is spent on a quest for self-protection.  

Consider the following practices that demonstrate our reliance on fear in our leadership practices that we may not even recognize.  In many forms, fear is the natural, unavoidable outcome of adopting these practices. Our conscious motive may not have been to control using fear… But when it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck… Well, you get the picture.

  1.   “If you do this you will get that”  Incentives. 

Our reliance on incentives to get people to act as we would like them to act is so pervasive that, for many, it just seems like common sense.  Eat your peas, get a reward. Sell more tickets, get a reward. Study hard, get an A. Do your homework, get a gold star. Raise the stock price, become a super-rich executive.    

The research is clear, however, the more you manipulate people’s performance using rewards that are seen as desirable, the more they become interested in the reward and the less they become interested in the underlying activity.  

Put another way, incentives motivate us to get the incentive, not to study harder or improve quality or play better or to be more creative.  The fear of loss inherent in these processes can be life-altering. Watch someone’s reaction to performance appraisals, or bonuses or grades.  It can keep a person up at night and cause him or her to do crazy stuff during the day.

2.  Internal Competition

Somewhere along the line, we bought into the belief that when people compete, performance improves. Unfortunately, this couldn’t be more wrong. The jury is in, in fact, it’s been in for years. Nearly a century of research demonstrates that competing - especially in a scenario where one’s winning requires another’s loss - undermines relationships and creates unnecessary fear (of loss, of looking stupid, etc.). Competing does not facilitate excellence; in fact, it works against it.

Too often even if there’s no punishment for the ‘losers,’ the message is clear: “if you’re not at the top, you don’t measure up.”

3.  Compensation

Pay is important.  Most of us need to get paid to provide food and shelter and a measure of independence.  Anything that threatens our ability to make a living evokes fear. So when we use money as a motivator, we create a real fear that we may not get the bonus or the pay raise or, in a worst case scenario, we might lose our jobs.  This fear is real.  

It’s better to pay fairly and to avoid using money to manipulate performance.  As soon as we do, we create the kind of fear that is crippling for many. For others, it invites them to do anything to get the money.  Think of the execs who manipulate finances or the salesperson who discounts against company interest. Make the reward big enough and people will find a way to get the money…we should not be surprised.   They are simply playing the game that was set up for them. It’s amazing how many times we set up a system that uses compensation as a reward and then act surprised when people care more about the money than the customer or learning or quality.

4.  Grades and Grids

From a young age, we’re presented with the reality of grades. Whether those grades are a smiley at the end of a daycare day, a GPA that seems all-important for college admission, or a grid that determines how we’re ranked by those in management, we assume that when we perform tasks we will be graded accordingly. These grades are so “natural” that we have a hard time imagining education or performance management without them. 

Both in education and business, grades are designed to improve learning, yet, in reality, they do just the opposite. They undermine learning.  Find the easy teacher.  Cheat on the test.  It should not surprise us that nearly 80 percent of all college kids cheat before they finish college.

Additionally, the evidence is mounting that we can’t grade people fairly.  Of course, we all think that we are the exception. But we are not. I gave an exec recently a mulligan to regrade all of his direct reports. Without access to his first pass at grades, almost every grade was different only a week later.  Does anyone think that an English professor would assign the same grades to essays if they were to be redone? Even if we could, it is far more likely that our biases would determine more of the variation in grades than the performance of the person being graded.  No wonder we are fearful. We know, at least intuitively, that what we are likely to get from the process can’t be predicted. Uncertainty creates fear.

5.  Unreasonable Goals or Quotas

We have been told that setting high expectations are critical to success.  BHAGs - Big Hairy Audacious Goals - can facilitate innovative performance. It is true, as the old saying goes, that all significant progress comes through the efforts of unreasonable men who refuse to ‘know their limits.’

Although goals that might seem unreasonable given present performance can help people look beyond the comfort of their present methods, when we push too far, when people perceive the goal is totally unattainable, these very same goals can be demotivating.  When they are tied to a process of accountability including rewards, they can be fear-inducing.

Recently, without a plan or careful consideration, the CEO of a billion-dollar company agreed to a 15% revenue growth goal for the coming year.  At first blush, this seemed reasonable. But because this goal came on the heels of a year in which revenues rose 30% based on the adoption of a once-in-a-generation product, leaders within the company knew that the goal was unattainable.  Partially out of obligation and partially out of fear for their jobs, they agreed to the goal and did everything to try and grow revenues. They compromised their relationships with customers and partners in the process. The predictable result: revenues declined by nearly 30% and the relationships they needed to ‘turn around’ the business in the future were compromised.  

Victor Frankl had it right when he warned us that “what we fear, we create.”

A word of caution

These five ways that we use fear, mostly unintentionally, to control performance represent only a few of the ways that many of us try and control performance and increase the perception of performance certainty.  Micro-managing, the failure to delegate, reliance on compensation consultants, and overly simplistic leadership development classes that rely on an outdated form of behavior modification make creating a culture with the requisite psychological safety needed to fully engage people nearly impossible.

It is time to just say no to the fear-inducing habits of the past and replace them with methods far more likely to evoke positive emotion.  With each passing day, yesterday’s methods of asserting control are getting less effective and more expensive. 

Each of us must become more mindful of how we mindlessly perpetuate yesterday’s less-than-effective practices.  And we must learn to seek out new ways of choosing to connect in with others in ways that are safer and more fulfilling.

This may start with the following questions that we must ask and answer honestly prior to paving a new path forward:

  • What are the first three things that we can do to eliminate fear in our culture (and workplace??

  • How can we create a dialogue that creates a collective sense of the role fear plays in our present practices?

  • How can we fill our cultures with far more positive emotion?

It is not our job - as leaders - to build more capability on our teams.  Rather, it is our job to create positive cultures where people are willing to express the greatness that already exists in the people on the team.

And that begins with the elimination of avoidable fear.

Co-written by Gary Heil and Laura Pyne