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Motivate with Fear

"It is much safer to be feared than loved because is preserved by the link of obligation which, owing to the baseness of men, is broken at every opportunity for their advantage; but fear preserves you by a dread of punishment which never fails."

 - Niccolò Machiavelli, The Prince

Wow, so middle-aged white guys have been spewing alternative facts for centuries, huh?

One of the primary responsibilities of a leader is to motivate others and doing so effectively can make the difference between organizations that succeeds and ones that fail.  Motivating by fear could mean a leader rousing his or her employees to do what is expected of them lest they be terminated or punished.

That management choice creates a toxic environment in which transparency and growth become enemies of job security.  In such a workplace, an employee has no interest in revealing when things are not going well for fear of being scapegoated as the messenger of such news.   

Safe environments that foster constructive and open discussions allow organizations to evolve when needed.  However, fear encourages the status quo and discourages people from taking well-thought-out, calculated risks or venturing into new aspects of a business, which contributes to an organization’s inertia.

People become more invested in what they do if they believe in the purpose and value of their contributions. If instead, workers are fearful for their jobs, they are less likely to share their opinions truthfully and the leader has surrounded themselves with “yes men” (and women) who regurgitate back what they know he (or she) wants to hear.  While that may provide a coveted ego boost to a narcissist, leaders need to rely on the details and knowledge specialists provide and must consider those facts objectively otherwise decisions are made in a vacuum rife with incorrect assumptions.

Additionally, a “Hunger Games”-like setting can result in employees each feeling that they are in competition with one another and that their own survival must come at another’s expense. For example, an employee can choose to withhold new information that is relevant to another’s project to sabotage their coworker’s success and negatively impact their standing in the company. Such an environment is counterproductive to a team working together cohesively to achieve a goal when each step is hindered by second-guessing each others’ motives and losing sight of anything but one’s self-interests. 

So given all the cons of such a management strategy, can fear ever be an effective motivator? It can, but only in specific circumstances. Picture it: a team is getting ready for the launch of a new product; the deadlines are tight and the project’s success is important to the team and the company as a whole. In this situation, while individuals may fear failure, if the fear comes from their drive to succeed, then it can motivate them to work harder, seek out any help needed, and excel at overcoming the challenges they face. However, if the fear comes from a manager insisting that failure is not an option, this may cause undue stress that causes the team members to doubt themselves and make mistakes that prevent a successful launch.  A key aspect of this flavor of “motivating by fear” is that it has to stem from within as opposed to being one imposed on a person through their reporting chain. 

Machiavelli thinks that leaders should instill fear in others to lead effectively and create “safe” environment that guarantee success. However, the only guarantee this management technique provides is toxic, stagnant, and vicious work environments that fail to bring out the best in team members.  Teams that feel connected to each other and believe in the mission of their work and the value they add will collaborate to achieve their goals and bring out the best in one another.


Randa Fayez

Randa Fayez is a New Yorker who makes a living as a software engineer at Bloomberg LP. She spends her days working on highly-available systems that serve hundreds of thousands of customers, focusing on her team members' growth, and learning how to better herself as a technologist and a leader.

When not at work, Randa hides in museums, takes photos of odd angles and strange light, and contemplates the meaning of life while trying to recall if she forgot the oven on before leaving her apartment.