Leadership Skill – Does Fear Motivate?

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Leadership Skill – Does Fear Motivate?

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In nearly every seminar I give when the conversation shifts to motivation we have to cover the front end concept of whether motivation is intrinsic or extrinsic. Does it come from each individual internally or is it conditioned by external factors?

There are some strong beliefs on either side, but I must say that I believe people can be motivated and that people are not just naturally motivated, or not.


Many of my leadership seminars cover the concepts of motivation, inspiration, and purpose. My strongest belief is that purpose is the most important factor for workplace motivation, but it is not just that simple. Often hard-charging workplace leaders, those who hold formal positions of leadership such as supervisors, managers, and directors unconsciously drive workplace performance from a position of fear. They often state the consequence of poor performance, failure to achieve goals, or why change should or should not happen from a position of fear.

They are known to make statements such as:

“Anyone who doesn’t achieve their sales goal is gone at the end of the month.”

“The other division is beating us on goals every month. I’m afraid top management is going to make some changes.”

“We always do it this way, if you don’t like that you probably should find a different job.”

Depending on the economy, unemployment rate, and the availability of a skilled workforce for a particular industry or business sector (and geographic location) some of these fear oriented comments may cause people to spring into action. Some long-term supervisors actually make these statements with a certain level of pride, after all, once upon a time, their boss told them something similar.

If you are still unsure, yes, fear can be a motivator, but it is likely at the demise of long-term, culturally efficient or effective teams.

Fear as a motivator tends to create an, us against you, attitude. It is the idea of, you don’t care about me, and so I in turn don’t care about you. The long-term consequences are frightening.

If you are familiar with the buzz phrase “paycheck only” employees then you don’t need to look any further than fear being used as a tool to motivate.

Employees need to be inspired and need to understand their sense of purpose to the organization and its mission. When this occurs the strength of the team has everything to do with goal achievement and performance excellence, sure pay is important and will always be a factor but motivating through fear is one of the most deadly workplace culture sins.

Don’t motivate through fear.


Originally posted on September 20, 2016, last updated on August 31, 2020.

See related: 7 Reasons to Inspire

Dennis E. Gilbert is a business consultant, speaker (CSPTM), and culture expert. He is a five-time author and the founder of Appreciative Strategies, LLC. His business focuses on positive human performance improvement solutions through Appreciative Strategies®. Reach him through his website at Dennis-Gilbert.com or by calling +1 646.546.5553.

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September 21, 2016at 1:50 pm

How did you become so knowledgable regarding these aspects of Leadership?

    Dennis Gilbert

    September 21, 2016at 4:36 pm

    A combination of education and experience I guess. There is definitely always more to learn and understand, especially as pressure is exerted on organizations today. (21st Century leadership. 🙂 )


      September 21, 2016at 6:42 pm

      21st Century Leadership … I Love That Idea! You are the right person to COMMUNICATE 21st Century Leadership!

      Good Luck!

        Dennis Gilbert

        September 22, 2016at 6:16 am

        Thanks so much.

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