Fear as a motivator


The image above is taken from the Fritz Lang film “Metropolis” and represents the factory in the form of a demon eating up the lives of the workers.  Despite expressions from the likes of Jeff Bezos  that he wants “paid volunteers” working in Amazon the simple truth is that most people work because they have to.  Entrepreneurs may be doing what they love, but most employees work to pay the milk bill.  They will tell you they love working for you, because that’s what you want to hear.

At some level in every organisation fear exists as a motivator for work.  In simple terms if the employee does not work they will be fired.  The higher the likelihood of being fired the more productive workers are.  Private sector workers are more productive than public sector workers.  They take shorter breaks, less sick leave and work longer hours.  Short term contractors are more productive than permanent staff.  Let’s face it, fear works.

I had an interesting conversation with a young intern this week.  She looks forward to becoming a manager and being able to “boss staff around”.  This cracked me up.  I have  tried to boss staff around, in my youth.  It was a disaster.  Fear may work on the basis of institutional motivation, but it is a failure in the modern work environment at a personal level.  There may be some remote corners where bosses can shout at staff and get away with it, but they are few and far between.  In return all you get is lots of energy when you are visible and resentment as soon as you turn your back.

If you want to motivate people to throw themselves into their work you need to find ways to enrich and reward.  The time you see this plainest is when a staff member is in the departure lounge.  They have handed in their notice and are serving it out.  In that period, be it a week, a month, three months, you no longer control them with fear.  They will work because they want to, at the things that please them.  If you can get to a situation where the things that please them are also the things that you need to deliver then you are in a good place.

Staff in this situation are also the most honest staff in the business.  They no longer need to tell you what you want to hear.  They can tell you the truth.  As a boss these are the most valuable and revealing conversations you can have.  Don’t leave it until the last day, and hold a 30 minute “exit interview”.  Use that last week or month to uncover the truth of the day to day workings of your team.


Out of work; by Langston Hughes

I walked de streets till
de shoes wore off my feet.
I done walked de streets till
de shoes wore off my feet.
I was lookin’ for a job
so’s that I could eat.

I couldn’t find no job
so I went to the WPA.
Couldn’t find no job
so I went to the WPA.
WPA man told me:
you got to live here a year and a day.

A year and a day, Lawd,
in this great big lonesome town!
Year and a day
in this great big lonesome town!
I might starve for a year but
that extra day would get me down.

Did you ever try livin’
on two-bits minus two?
I say did you ever try livin’
on two-bits minus two?
Why don’t you try in, folks,
and see what it would do to you?

Food Ritual 2: Inclusion and Exclusion


Food is a means of including and excluding people.  The most inclusive groups of people tend to have the most liberal tastes in food.  Everyone is welcome at the table, and you are welcome to serve any food you like.

Jewish Rabbis in middle age Europe fought a constant battle to hold the faithful in their religion.  Young people who fraternised with Christians were at risk of marrying out.  So the Rabbis reinforced observance of the kosher laws to keep their congregations intact.  If you cannot eat with people, you do not keep company with them.

The Spanish inquisition saw this also.  When ex-Jews converted to Catholicism the church in Spain monitored their food consumption.   If they did not roast a leg of pork from time to time they risked being accused of back-sliding.

So you can be included, or excluded from a “tribe” by the food you eat.  Kosher, Halal, Vegetarian, Vegan, Fruitarian, Pescatarian, South-Beach, Atkins, Weightwatchers.

In societies with “untouchable” castes, there are strict rules guiding who sits at what table.  In societies where food is eaten with the right hand, as in many Arabic countries, if a thief has his right hand removed, it is a far more dreadful punishment than the loss of the limb.  He is now excluded from dining with other people.  He must eat alone.  He is banished from the table.

An invitation to the table is an inclusion in society.  In the middle ages in Europe you could tell the status of a person by where they sat in the Lords hall, what foods they were permitted to eat, what cloth they were permitted to wear, in which colours, right down to what type of bird they could hunt with.

It was considered a great sin and shame to breach the laws of hospitality.  A guest under your roof must be fed.  The poor regularly appeared at the homes of the wealthy to beg alms from a feast, relying on the shame factor of the host if they were sent away hungry.

Stories abounded of mean minded hosts or their stewards, who would refuse to feed the poor, or charge them a fee for the table leftovers.

In one story from Middle Age Ireland a man starved himself to death on the doorstep of his enemy, to condemn his enemy to a lifetime of shame for permitting a guest to die on his threshold.

It is very important, to have a place in society, to eat with others.  In modern western society a lot of old people end up living on their own.  Volunteers give their time and effort to deliver Meals on Wheels to these people.  But it would be better to deliver the person to the meal, than the meal to the person.

Dinner Guest: Me   by Langston Hughes

I know I am
The Negro Problem
Being wined and dined,
Answering the usual questions
That come to white mind
Which seeks demurely
To Probe in polite way
The why and wherewithal
Of darkness U.S.A.–
Wondering how things got this way
In current democratic night,
Murmuring gently
Over fraises du bois,
“I’m so ashamed of being white.”

The lobster is delicious,
The wine divine,
And center of attention
At the damask table, mine.
To be a Problem on
Park Avenue at eight
Is not so bad.
Solutions to the Problem,
Of course, wait.

Listen Hear


Do you practice listening?  If you don’t then you probably aren’t listening very well, unless you are one of those strange and wonderful creatures born with the natural propensity to listen actively to what others are saying.  For most of us frail humans active listening is a chore.  It is easier by far to listen to the sage wisdom that spews from our own consciousness.

However, brilliant though you may be, there is only one of you.  The collected wisdom of mankind does not reside in your head, so from time to time make the effort to listen to others.  They may be saying something important.

To help you here are some techniques for turning people on, and for turning people off.

1.  Active listening body language

Just the way you sit or stand can encourage, or discourage the person who is speaking.  To be an active listener you need to monitor your body language to make sure your posture is open and welcoming.  You should make good eye contact.  Lean forward, angle your head slightly.  Avoid folding your arms and crossing your legs as these are physical barriers.  Don’t lean or sit back (seems like you are in judgement), and avoid rubbing your chin or steepling your fingers.

2.  Non-vocalised encouragement

Nodding is good, you are saying “Yes!  Go on!”  Shaking your head in appropriate places is also powerful, as you can be saying “so sad” or “how unbelievable” etc.  More difficult to gauge is making physical contact, as it is highly cultural, contextual and personal.  In the right situation holding a hand, touching a shoulder or giving a hug can engender great empathy, trust and an outpouring of emotion.  In the wrong situation it will rapidly shut down communication and cause offense.  It could even get you arrested.

3.  Vocalised encouragement

A far safer area of encouragement than tactile reinforcement is verbal reinforcement.  This can range from simply making encouraging noises (Ah Ha, Um, Oh), through actual words (Yes, I see, and then?) to full blown sentences (So what did you say to him then?)

4.  Driving the narrative

Part of active listening is allowing the other person to tell their story.  Very often we hear the beginning of a story, which reminds us of something that happened to us, and we launch into telling our story.  The original story is lost along the way.  The active listener is focused on hearing the whole story.  To help it along they may drive the narrative forward.  I find the best way to do this, without changing the story, is to repeat the last sentence you heard.  Try it, it is very powerful.  It reinforces to the narrator that you are paying attention, you are interested and you want to hear more.

5.  Colouring in the narrative

Some people tell a great story, and others need help.  If a story is very dry, it may be because it is devoid of adjective, descriptor, emotional context etc.  You can help the narrator to build the story with some well-placed cues to colour in the landscape.  Examples might be along the lines of:  Who was with you?  How did that make you feel at the time?  What was your first reaction?  Did they seem to be under pressure?  Did you have a meal in the café? Etc.

If you want them to build and build, then preface these cues with the words “Yes, And…”

6.  Killing the narrative

The opposite of “Yes, And…”  is “Yes, but…”.  When you use the word “but” everything positive that you just said is cancelled out.  If you want to stop someone speaking there are many ways to do it.  Disinterested body language, absent eye contact, tell them they are wrong, laugh inappropriately in the wrong place.  Some can be subtle and others are obvious.  But sometimes you need to keep someone quiet.  If you are actively listening and someone else tries to interrupt you generally get the message across with a blocking gesture, hand up, palm out towards the interruption.  A slow, loose handed version acts as a “Shhhhh” whereas a firm, flat handed version, held for a second, with full eye contact, is an emphatic “shut up”.  This can then be reinforced by turning to the original speaker, and saying “Go on, you said”….and repeat their last sentence.

In group situations (focus groups, meetings etc) when one person becomes annoying and will not allow anyone else to speak it is perfectly acceptable to be very straight with them along the lines of  “We know your opinion, now we want to hear the opinions of others, can you be quiet and listen for a while now please?”

Come to think of it, people are always saying that to me.  I wonder why?

Trumpet Player; by Langston Hughes

The Negro
With the trumpet at his lips
Has dark moons of weariness
Beneath his eyes
where the smoldering memory
of slave ships
Blazed to the crack of whips
about thighs

The negro
with the trumpet at his lips
has a head of vibrant hair
tamed down,
patent-leathered now
until it gleams
like jet—
were jet a crown

the music
from the trumpet at his lips
is honey
mixed with liquid fire
the rhythm
from the trumpet at his lips
is ecstasy
distilled from old desire—

that is longing for the moon
where the moonlight’s but a spotlight
in his eyes,
that is longing for the sea
where the sea’s a bar-glass
sucker size

The Negro
with the trumpet at his lips
whose jacket
Has a fine one-button roll,
does not know
upon what riff the music slips

It’s hypodermic needle
to his soul
but softly
as the tune comes from his throat
mellows to a golden note