Are You Afraid? by Kevin McManus
First published in Industrial Engineer magazine April 2006
Are you afraid? Are there certain things you are reluctant to do, or say, at work because of what the ramifications might be? If a friend of yours asked you if fear was a concern in your workplace, what would your response be? I have hade the ‘luxury’ of working in a few fear-based workplaces during my career, and if I reflect back on my experiences, I can now safely say that I would be able to easily answer “Yes” to these questions.
It is stating the obvious to point out that fear in the workplace hinders personal, team, and organizational performance. At the same time, I bet you know of at least a few people who would argue that some degree of fear in the workplace is good – that people need to fear for their jobs, or be at least little cautious about their actions, in order to remain motivated or to keep from doing the wrong thing. What do you think? Does it make sense to rely to some degree on fear as a motivator?
If we use our social norms as reference point, it’s pretty easy to demonstrate how it is almost culturally acceptable to use fear as a motivator. The media uses fear to sell products, to entice you to watch their newscasts, and to otherwise keep you tuned in. Politicians use fear to get elected, and coaches use fear to keep their players focused on the prize. If fear is relied on to such a significant extent outside of the workplace to keep us motivated, can it be that wrong to use fear inside the workplace to keep people focused on their jobs, working at a steady pace, and doing the ‘right thing’?
Personally, I think using fear as a motivator is wrong. Perhaps my opinions about using fear to encourage people towards higher levels of performance are biased by my own experiences with workplace fear. I know what it feels like to worry about the consequences of making one mistake or saying the wrong thing in a meeting. I don’t have to dig too deeply into my memory banks to recall the stress that I felt about sending out certain reports, sharing the numbers I had collected with certain people, challenging certain work practices that our management team seemed to be leaning towards, or simply opening an e-mail. You might think I am a bit paranoid, but I think I do know what it feels like to be walking around the plant floor with a target on my back.
Fear is most definitely a convenient motivator, especially if you currently hold a management position. After all, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the number of management jobs has declined by 25% in just the last five years. While it is true that a lot of older managers are starting to retire, it is also true that technology is making it much easier to avoid filling those vacancies. In general, a good paying job, especially with a good company, is hard to find. Plus, you really don’t have to outwardly threaten people with potential job loss – you only have to imply that such a thing could occur.
Don’t get me wrong. I didn’t walk around in a constant state of panic. I recognized early on that if I kept my skills up-to-date, if I sought out ways to add true value to my organization, and if I stayed connected to people in other organizations, I would not have that much trouble landing on my feet if my organization chose to play the job loss card and make an example of me. The sense of personal security these strategies provided me with probably even encouraged me to be more outspoken. That doesn’t mean my co-workers shared the same sense of comfort however.
Using fear as a motivator destroys creativity, encourages people to suppress information and search for ways to stay out of trouble, and in general, discourages a majority of the types of human contribution that we rely on to support our process improvement efforts. Additionally, since it is difficult to avoid seemingly constant reminders of things to be fearful of outside of work, using fear inside of the workplace as well simply pushes people into greater states of paranoia, stress, and frustration. The potential for human error increases, and the desire to do anything more than make it through the day dies.
Again, that all seems like common sense, and yet, we do tend to be overly reliant, if not motivated, to use fear as one of our primary means of trying to get more out of people. It’s the thing to do – it’s how the world works. Besides, what are our alternatives? Do you really think that people would want to try to continually improve their jobs if we didn’t use fear to some degree to give them a kick in the pants? Do you think that the options of depending on intrinsic motivation or positive reinforcement are even viable in today’s workplace? If we can’t use fear to keep our people in line, what other options do we have?
If we strip away the fear-based blinders that society likes to place over our eyes, we would realize that we actually do have a lot of other motivational options to use. We might also recognize the fact that we don’t have to remind our people about the possibility of job loss or reprimand, because in most cases, they’re very much aware of what the employment situation is or they’re paranoid enough already from simply watching the news or reading the newspaper. Instead of driving our people into deeper states of apprehension, we should be providing them with alternatives. We should be stressing the same things that I have relied on for years to give me my own sense of security – keep your skills up-to-date, stay connected, and continually search for ways to add more value on a daily basis.
By making ourselves, our processes, and our organizations more effective, we can confidently ward off any threat that we might have a cause to be fearful of. This philosophy won’t work in every case, but it will work a majority of the time. Besides, if you work in a company that would let you go even though you can easily demonstrate the value that you provide, you probably don’t want to keep working there any way. We should be much more fearful of a management approach that is fear-based than we should of the fear of failing to impress those managers who rely on and use such an approach. In short, Franklin D. Roosevelt had it right years ago in his first inaugural address – the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.
Would You Like to Learn More?
Click on one of the following links to learn even more about Great Systems! and the types of systems improvements I can help you make:
“The only thing I know is that I do not know it all.” -- Socrates