7 reasons why using fear motivation with employees is bad strategy

Career Advice
21 Oct 2022

Fear motivation is a tactic that employers use to stimulate employees by associating negative consequences to certain work-related tasks. The examples range from getting yelled at by the boss for missing a deadline to taking a pay cut for poor performance to fear of layoffs leading to job insecurity.

Many organizational set-ups adopt the fear motivation approach. This is because it is easy to induce fear that results in some immediate action from employees. However, persistent use of fear to inspire workers can lead to counterproductive outcomes.

We take a look at why too much fear is too bad to encourage employees at workplaces:

#1. Breaks trust and reduces team cohesiveness

If an employee is working in a fear-based work environment, he/she is unlikely to work to their full potential without fearing consequences of failure.

Supervisors who use fear and intimidation as a tool to motivate workers may succeed in doing so at the risk of losing trust. And since working in team settings involve trust and collaboration, fear also eats away into team cohesiveness. This, in turn, hampers the overall efficiency of workers who are more concerned about their interests than the team output.

#2. Stifles creativity

Sheila Keegan authored the book, ‘The Psychology of Fear in Organizations: How to Transform Anxiety into Well-being, Productivity and Innovation’. In her highly rated publication, she links a ‘psychologically healthy workplace with creativity’. Only a well-relaxed mind, devoid of anxious thoughts can think of novel ways to solve everyday problems at workplace.

Empirical studies also suggest that employers who use authoritarian leadership are likely to stifle the creativity levels of employees.

#3. Leads to stress and burnout

Excessive fear breeds feelings of alienation and helplessness among employees at a workplace. Experiencing increased isolation over a long time can then lead to over-stress, depression and job burn-out in extreme cases.

Moreover, research indicates that over-stressed employees cannot use their prefrontal cortex (part of the brain responsible for cognition and coping) effectively at work. This means employees are less likely to monitor errors or make good decisions.

#4. Curbs risk-taking behavior

Fear often pressurizes employees to adopt the safest possible methods to achieve excepted work outcomes. The fear of being ousted for their mistakes forbids them from taking calculative risks (that can otherwise promise profits).

Alternatively, managers who ensure that they do not discourage employees who take moderate risks at work encourage better learning.

#5. Inhibits learning and productivity

In a series of experiments, Bélanger and others of the University of Maryland studied ‘the impact of success and failure information on passionate individuals' performance’. Their findings advocated that fear works as a motivator mostly for individuals with an obsessive passion (those who fear the risk of failure in goal attainment).

On the other hand, people with ‘harmonious passion’ (those who are less likely to be affected by failure and setbacks) recorded no change in their motivation levels. Their performances remained the same during all experiments despite negative feedback.

Hence, fear motivation is unlikely to influence employees uniformly. In most cases, it curbs their risk-taking behavior and eventually leads to lesser learning and decreased productivity.

#6. Lack of genuine allegiance and commitment

During times of volatile market changes, fear of losing one’s job may motivate some employees to perform better. However, it also creates greater job insecurity, which is in turn linked with poor physical and mental health of employees.

Employees worried about their keeping their jobs are certainly unable to promise superior commitment and loyalty to their employers.

#7. Using fear to motivate: A risky route

Fear (when used in appropriate doses in the right context) can sometimes incentivize employees to perform better.

Nevertheless, experts believe using fear to motivate is a risky route to take. It may be used when an employer runs out of all other options to motivate the workforce. Otherwise, it can result in employees feeling rigid, ineffective and uncertain about their job roles.

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