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?