Motivating by Fear (Seriously? Still?)


Motivating by fear only works on people who scare easily. And people who scare easily are generally not your higher performers. High performers are confident. And confident people don’t tolerate controlling, fear-based environments.

So why do some managers still try to coerce and manipulate their employees, managing in the archaic mode of dominance and compliance?

They’ve  learned to

They were likely treated the same way by their bosses and have learned that fear-based motivation is the normal course of management. And they’re right – as long as they work with people who were also raised in the same control and compliance culture.

It feels good

Some managers cling to fear-based motivation because they love feeling powerful and in control. Once some managers taste it, the intoxicating lure of power becomes addictive. Lord Acton’s classic warning is personified. “Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely.” The manipulative manager that controls for the sake of feeling powerful emotionally exploits employees in order to feel better about him or herself. Remember, the most controlling people tend to feel out of control in nearly all areas of their lives. Subsequently, they control whatever they can – mostly other people.

So what’s in it for them? They get what they want. They get employees who do what they are told, and who never disagree (openly anyway). Now while this might sound tempting, deep down inside we know how unproductive it is to motivate by fear.

Four common pitfalls for a controlling, fear-based work environment.

Energy Drain

Employees spend most of their energy looking over their shoulders and secretly conspiring with coworkers on ways to survive the dehumanizing work environment. This leaves little or no energy for creative problem-solving and innovation.

Knowledge Vacuum

Fear-based managers operate in a vacuum and are isolated from the creativity and objectivity of diverse ideas. They function within a limited scope of understanding. While they may argue that they know more than everyone else and don’t need anyone else’s input, those around them roll their eyes, knowing the truth (keeping it to themselves until they sneak away for their survivor tribe alliance).

Underdeveloped Staff

Employees never learn to develop their ideas nor the confidence and competency that come from executing them. The culture fosters dependency, rather than independent thinkers and collaborative problem-solvers. Employees learn to ask for direction and permission from the manager who, ironically enough, ultimately resents them for being weak and passive neophytes. Nevertheless the dependency created in this culture propagates the autocratic leadership style necessary to maintain the balance.

Top-Tier Turnover

The employees who remain in this fear-based environment tend to remain under-developed. Those who strive for growth and development leave. Which do you want in your organization?

So what do you do if you’re a high performer who wants to remain in an organization that has a controlling, fear-based boss?

I have some ideas, but am interested in yours as well.

Email your ideas to me at and I’ll share some thoughts on this next month.

(Of course your anonymity will be protected. We all know what would happen if your boss found out.)


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