Fear as a Motivator | Does it Work vs. a Positive Outcome Focus?

Fear can sometimes be a great motivator, but it can often be the great paralyzer.

Fear as a motivator

Fear is easily overpowered. Find out the better way to motivate yourself and others. (Tweet That)

I recently wrote about fear-based leadership as being one of the three greatest downfalls of a leader. I received comments like this:

One thing I have seen a lot, and have experience with as well, is having the fear of losing your job hanging over your head. Leaders falsely think that it motivates people, but that kind of fear just paralyzes them.

I agree with that statement. Most leaders mistakenly think fear is an effective way to motivate people, and it can be. But only occasionally and only for the short-term. Frequent and long-term fear does paralyze people and nine times out of ten, it leads to the exact opposite of the desired result.

The same goes for trying to motivate ourselves.

Diet and exercise

Fear motivates someone to eat better and exercise for about two weeks. The doctor says, “you’re going to have a heart attack if you don’t eat better and exercise.

So you eat better and exercise. You immediately go to the store and buy loads of perishable fruits and vegetables and lean meats. In two weeks or so, when it is time to stock up again, you are faced with a decision: go to the store for more healthy foods or eat a boxed dinner and some chips. Fear of premature death easily loses the battle to convenience and temporary pleasure.

The next day, the desire for an hour more sleep and watching your favorite show that you’ve missed the past two weeks takes over. So does your inability to suppress your appetite for Little Debbies.

Fear is easily overpowered

As powerful as fear is, it is easily overpowered by our desires. Unless you want the positive outcome bad enough, the fear-based motivation loses out. If you don’t want to be healthy, the fear of death doesn’t stand a chance in the face of your desires.

Now this can work in your favor. Consider the mom who fears water, but wouldn’t flinch to dive in to save her drowning baby. The positive (love of child) overpowers the negative.

A better way

Positive motivators are not easily defeated. They put up a fight. They argue with fear and usually win.

For the patient whose doctor just found high levels of bad cholesterol and blood pressure, saying “if you eat more fruits and vegetables and get more exercise, you will live a longer and healthier life, not to mention you’ll feel better, look better, and have better sex with your lovely wife,” is a positive motivator that can last a lifetime.

Example for business leaders

If you’re a business leader working with a chronically late salesperson, fear can work in the short-term. The fear of losing a job might be enough to motivate Joe to get his butt out of bed on time for a few weeks. But eventually his desire to sleep in will win.

The better way is to motivate him with what can happen if he shows up on time. Remind him that he has the potential to be a leader, that his income could be ____, that showing up on time will make him eligible for his year-end bonus, etc. The motivators are longer lasting.

My story

Five years ago, I lost more than fifty-five pounds. I wasn’t motivated by fear. I was only twenty-eight, so I thought I had a lot of life in front of me.

I was motivated by something positive: The desire to fit in size 32 jeans and a $1,000 bet with two business partners.

The three of us were each overweight and suffering the effects. We knew we needed to be in better health. We knew the consequences and benefits of both lifestyles. And yet we did nothing.

Until there was $1,000 on the line and we had pictures in our minds of what life would be like with a lot less weight.

I won that bet handily and when I looked back I realized that if you added up the hours I spent working out, walking, and planning, I made approximately $7.30/hour. Not a great deal financially. But I gained so much more.

I had positive motivators and I achieved amazing results.

What’s one thing you can change from fear-based to positive outcome-based motivation?

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  • I have dealt with the paralyzing kind of fear in the past, and know that even that can be overcome, so trying to motivate others with fear is like trying to convince someone to jump off a bridge. Most sane people just won’t do it.

    I wear 32s, but they’re getting tight. I need to write that 60-day running challenge.

  • I agree that fear is not the best motivator. I worked in the prevention field for a long time and I always preached that fact. However, it can be wake up call for some, just as long as it is follow-up with coaching, discipline, and other motivators.

    • Well said Jim. It’s great for a wake-up call, but then you need the other 99%.

  • Great post Matt. It is to easy to get consumed by fear instead of lighting the fire of passion.

  • Katherine Leicester

    The only thing I want my people to be afraid of is not achieving their dreams.

    • Love it. But don’t forget about snakes: http://www.mattmcwilliams.com/when-is-fear-ok/

      • Katherine Leicester

        Wan! Laughed out loud on that one. Remember the first time you saw a king snake (or something similar) in person? All that “oh snakes don’ bother me” garbage is out the window and you’re running for your life through the grape field toward the hill leading up to the house. :)

  • In my last job, I had a boss who told me, “Be careful on this status call with “John” (his boss) because he’s just waiting for you to screw up so he can make an example…”. This place was full of fear and intimidation. Is it surprising that it was one of the worst places I have worked?

    The thing I changed from Fear based to positive outcome-based… I left!

  • Tami Fenton

    You’re absolutely right, Matt. I just finished reading Instant Influence by Dr. Michael Pantalon. If you want hard scientific evidence to that fact, I highly recommend this book. Great post!

    • I will definitely have to check that out Tami. Thanks for the recommendation!

  • Killer post my friend. Sorry, I’ve been out of the blog reading realm lately. My one thing would be financial…I always get caught up in how horrible it will be to be broke, rather than focusing on all I’ll be able to do if I’m not broke. Thanks for shedding some light on this for me.

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