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Fear - The Greatest Motivator


Most Americans have a Jack Armstrong image of themselves and their peers.  Jack Armstrong, for some of you youngsters, was the all-American boy - forthright, straight shooter, brave, strong, and proud.  Jack would never, ever, take advantage of anybody.  He was the consummate doer of good deeds who would slay the forces of evil and the perpetrators of sin and corruption.  

This image of purity and goodness has been a barrier in the real world of management and particularly in the field of motivation.  Nobody but nobody wants to come out and say it, but fear is the single most effective motivator.  No manager will admit to having that tool in his arsenal of weapons to get people to work harder.  That would not be American and kind of dirty.  It would be like stealing your mother's welfare check to play the horses.

Why is fear the unmentionable factor in a manager's lexicon?  One reason is that most managers today wouldn't have the balls to carry out the threat that generates fear and his employees know it.  Most big corporations rarely fire anybody.  They just move the incompetents around from department to department or division to division hoping that the problem employee will find his niche.  Sometimes the incompetent is promoted within this scenario.

On the production line, where most motivational programs are concentrated, you have a whole net of circumstances which negate fear as a weapon of motivation.  First line managers are coached on the newly popular big brother image of the boss.  One example is the recent television commercial where the new foreman jumps into the problem on the line.  He makes the critical adjustment and then looks away while wash up rules are violated and then comes the climax when he picks up the bar tab.  Isn't that nice?  He's the new Jack Armstrong.

Today's work forces have built in a whole series of protective mechanisms which make fear a lost tool in the bosses’ arsenal.  First we have seniority.  This does a great job of killing incentives.  Often the worst performer must be promoted because of seniority.  This is a real killer for the ambitious hard-working newcomer.  Second, we have the annual automatic cost of living increase.  This reward, given to incompetents as we as star performers, is an almost communistic approach where everybody is equal.  Third, we have the impact of unions who in some cases resist maximum effort by their membership.  Often a member will be criticized for exceeding low quotas set by the steward. 

Before I go any further, I would like to make one point.  This is not an attack on unionism.  I have seen extreme examples of management going berserk in driving employees to back breaking efforts and I have seen unions with totally intolerable work rules.  Some middle ground is needed.

Now, let's get back to the original premise.  If fear is the greatest motivator and there is no fear in the work force then how long can you motivate?  The answer is not easy.  Your chances of motivating under the scenario I have just described are relatively poor, almost impossible.  Some will say that's baloney.  We have libraries of books on motivation.  Why?  The reason is that motivating employees in their protected environment is a lost cause.  What has happened is that the managers hands are tied today and no amount of motivational gobbledygook will take the place of good old fear.

How can you shift from the entrenched Jack Armstrong roles to the realism of today's competitive world?  The first step must be to stop cost of living increases.  Reward only the best and tell the non-performers why they did not get raises.  In a very short term, good workers raises would be significantly higher than your dead wood.  Promotions based on rates rather than seniority would provide incentives to perform.  Third, in times of adversity, reduce staff on the basis of skill and ability with the one provision you must not bypass the competent based on opinion and preference.  This is extremely difficult and complex.  The difficulty of the task cannot be minimized.  These actions require the full use of the courage that some employees feel that bosses lack.  It's an operation that tests the managers on the field of battle.

This reversal of the managers’ role must not be the only change.  The change from a patsy (Jack Armstrong) to yes sir-no sir type boss, must be packaged into a new operational scenario.  In the new role of the manager, the emphasis is in the direction of continuous interaction with each employee, with praise and criticism given as necessary everyday in some way.  Assignments must carry specific instructions with expectations given.  These expectations must be fair and achievable.  This interaction should provide fulfillment and satisfaction to the employees for a job well done.  Currently, in many places, the only fulfillment an employee gets is in beating the system by loafing or withholding his best effort.  This has to change.

Let's deal with the ultimate dirty word, "fear".  Fear is an emotion that generates defensive action.  The dictionary describes fear as apprehension, alarm, fright, dread, dismay, consternation and awe.  All of these are pluses on the ladder of motivation.  One must realize that fear properly used can be a formidable motivator.  However, it can best be compared to fertilizer.  The right amount of fertilizer and a prize garden is the result.  Too much and your plant will die.  That applies to manufacturing plants as well as garden plants.  Fear should be a moderate by-product of intelligent, squeaky clean, fair, positive, managerial controls. 


One must realize that merit raises and general raises or promotions are once a year or once in a decade occurrence.  The worker can hardly thrive on this kind of recognition.  He needs daily reinforcing of the company's interest in him and his contribution to the company.  That is why the managers must generate a continuous dialogue with the man on the line.  The concept of the ongoing evaluation against a known standard is the best possible motivator, but only if the manager has the capability to plant fear into the heart along with praise, recognition, and a promise of rewards for extra effort.  That is an important quality in management.

One final word, if you need a quick turn-around in a grumbling, non-productive work force, fire the worst performer, preferably the most firmly entrenched untouchable.  Fire him or her for cause, not as a work force reduction.  The change in the work force will be dramatic, actually astounding.  Fear and productivity will return quickly.


by Frank Drazan

Also, see my other article on the basics of how to manage a pressroom.

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