Category Archives: Why So Emotional?

Running Scared

“There’s nothing I’m afraid of like scared people.” – Robert Frost

The Danger of Using Fear to Motivate

I know it sounds crazy, but a lot of people out there really like to be scared out of their wits. Think about it for a minute. What rides do we love the best at amusement parks? We – and I am using the word “we” editorially because it does not include “me” in this instance – we stand in long lines for the faster, higher, bigger, scarier rides that get the adrenaline pumping, right? And that’s just for fun. We also love horror movies and suspense thrillers, not to mention the scariest of all holidays – Halloween.

As store displays and ads already anticipate, on October 31 we celebrate All Hallows Eve. This holiday founded as a feast to commemorate of the onset of winter after the harvest and later as a remembrance for saints has grown to include a celebration of themes of death, ghosts, ghouls, monsters, vampires, and other assorted and sordid creatures. Sales of candy, costumes, and decorations have grown into over a $5 billion a year month long event each October.

It is interesting that fear is a source of fun as we enjoy the excitement and the rush of feeling like we are in danger. However, it is very easy to cross the line between fun and fright when it comes to scary things. For instance, imagine one of those reverse bungee catapult carnival rides. Now imagine it without seatbelts or harnesses!

Fear is an emotion that is rooted in the desire to survive in the face of danger. When we are threatened in ways that go beyond thrill seeking we find that fear is really scary. To be genuinely afraid affects every part of who we are, mind, body, and soul. Because fear is such a powerful emotion, and because it can be manipulated in so many ways, some have taken to using fear to try to motivate others. We fear the unknown and as a result bosses and spouses, friends and family can use fear, rational or irrational, to motivate our actions and attitudes. This is especially true in tough times. The more uncertain we are the more afraid we may become.

On the surface it looks like using fear to motivate really works. It does cause an initial outward change in behavior. The trouble is that using a negative reinforcement to produce a positive behavioral result is usually doomed to fail. The best training methods for employees, children, and even pets are those which employ positive reinforcement and praise to reward good and right behavior coupled with corrective training when mistakes are made. Notice, I said corrective training, not punishment. There is an important difference. One is positive and the other negative.

It is better that people look for a good consequence to their actions than live in fear and dread of a negative consequence. Being motivated by fear will lead people to seek to avoid attention. They hide, and in the event that they do mess up, instead of being sorry for doing something wrong they are more likely to be sorry they got caught.

Using fear to motivate is a bad idea because it increases stress, irrational reactions, and poor judgment. Genuine fright drives people into a mentality of fight or flight – that is, they decide to fight what scares them, or they decide to run away. This breeds rebellious and contemptuous attitudes which lead to open confrontations or an abandonment of responsibility altogether.

In the workplace we need to learn that people are more motivated by things that make them feel secure than by things that threaten them. For example, which employee will do a consistently better job with a better attitude, one with affirmation, job security, and positive training, or one who is constantly being threatened with the loss of his job?

In simple terms it is like training a dog to fetch a stick. If the dog is praised when he retrieves the stick then he is learning about the positive rewards that come with playing the game. If instead, he fetches and then we hit him with the stick, it will not take long for the dog to decide he does not want to play this particular game any more.

As we strive to stay motivated and to motivate those around us we have to keep in mind that positive reinforcement yields much better results than negative. Positive thinking at work keeps us focused on our jobs. Negative thinking keeps us focused on our worries, fears, and uncertainties. Where should we be focused?

Applying these ideas to customer service, let’s read what Kristin Zhivago has written.

“When it comes to selling, the most important thing you can observe is your customers. What they believe and what they do is where your money comes from. We get a return from whatever we put our energy and time into. We only have so much energy and time. If you put your energy into fear, you will realize your fears. If you put your energy into meeting customer needs, you will get more customers – no matter what the economy is doing, no matter what the news media is saying, no matter what is happening all around you.”

So, are you scared? Don’t be. Instead remember, “All we have to fear is fear itself.”

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