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The fear factor

In the right circumstances, fear can be a powerful motivating force.

“Congratulations, we work for an underperforming business in a crappy industry and it’s going to be hell for the next 12 months,” chief executive John Pluthero wrote in a memo to the employees of Cable & Wireless in 2006. “If you are worried that it all sounds very hard, it’s time for you to step off the bus. This is no longer a place for the timid.”

In 2011, CEO Stephen Elop posted a similar missive to Nokia’s 130,000 employees: “I have learned that we are standing on a burning platform. And, we have more than one explosion — we have multiple points of scorching heat that are fueling a blazing fire around us.”

The assessments weren’t far from wrong, but they also didn’t lead to successful transformations: Cable & Wireless was split up in 2010 and its businesses sold off; Nokia sold its once high-flying mobile and devices business to Microsoft in 2013. These examples illustrate that fear isn’t always a terrific motivational tool for leaders.

Indeed, fear hasn’t been a favored motivational tool for some time. “Drive out fear, so that everyone may work effectively for the company” was the eighth of the 14 points for management presented by W. Edwards Deming in his 1982 classic Out of the Crisis. More recently, Amy Edmondson of Harvard Business School sang the refrain in compelling fashion in her book The Fearless Organization.

But there is an alternative view of fear that suggests it might have a place in the managerial tool kit. “A major catastrophe that frustrates a central goal of life will either destroy the self…or it will provide a new, more clear, and more urgent goal: to overcome the challenges created by the defeat,” wrote psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in his book Flow. If fear can provide the impetus for successful change under certain circumstances, what might those circumstances be?

The competitive world of high-end cuisine might provide some answers. Vaughn Tan, an assistant professor at the University College London’s School of Management, who cites Csikszentmihalyi in his new book, The Uncertainty Mindset (which I recently reviewed for s+b), explored how innovation works in some of the world’s most acclaimed restaurants. He found that desperation was purposely incorporated into the innovation process by forcing the teams to undertake tasks that are beyond their ken. “This visceral sense of fear drives individuals and teams to do things that they would otherwise be reluctant to do,” explained Tan. But Tan argues that fear should only be used with teams that must come up with new and unfamiliar things; as Deming and Edmondson noted, it can be brutal and demoralizing to employ fear in day-to-day work. Additionally, the desperation must be authentic; that is, the task must be beyond the team’s ability and accompanied by a real risk of failure. Finally, the desperation should not be unrelenting: Tan found that a “regular program for desperation” must include periods of rest after the challenge is met.

Although Tan was studying the ongoing innovation efforts of relatively small teams, it seems that “desperation by design” could be applied to larger, one-off initiatives, such as the kinds of transformations required in companies that must reinvent themselves to continue growing or to survive. Corporate transformations, especially when they involve burning platforms, also require people to stretch beyond their everyday abilities. They demand commitment, and the risks of failure are certainly real.

Fear can motivate behavior if employees perceive that they can cope with the resulting threat.”

Theresa Welbourne, the Will and Maggie Brooke Professor in Entrepreneurship at the University of Alabama’s Culverhouse School of Business, thinks fear can play a productive role in transformation. In a working paperPDF, she wrote, “It is necessary to retain and communicate fear in order to effect rapid, long-lasting organizational transformations.” Building on the foundation of protection motivation theory, which originally sought to explain how people respond to health appeals based on fear (such as anti-smoking messages), Welbourne suggested that instead of trying to minimize fear in transformation communications to employees, companies should send “fear-inducing messages” that do not underplay the risks and dangers that lie ahead. In fact, research shows that such messages can strengthen and accelerate change behaviors.

Like Tan, though, Welbourne added an important note: The messages also need to offer employees a way forward. “It is the combination of fear appeal and coping information that results in desired behavior changes (adaptive behaviors),” she wrote. “Fear can motivate behavior if employees perceive that they can cope with the resulting threat.”

This rings true to me: There is no way to eradicate fear — you can either hide from it or face it. If you want employees to face fear, you’d better give them good reasons to take a stand and the means to win the fight.

Theodore Kinni
Ted Kinni

Theodore Kinni is a contributing editor of strategy+business. He also blogs at Reading, Writing re: Management.



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