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MCLEOD: Why fear is a terrible motivator

Lisa McLeod

Lisa McLeod

A 1980s sales training video opened with a manager saying, "Sales is all about fear. The salespeople are afraid the customers won't buy, and the customers are afraid they will buy."

Sadly, the sentiment rings true in many professions. If you've ever found yourself staring down the short end of a bad revenue report, or an impossible production schedule, or a month with more bills than money, you know what I mean.

Who hasn't felt the cold clammy finger of dread? It starts in your gut and spreads like ice water through your veins, moving into your arms and legs. Your heart beats faster, your breathing becomes shallow and you break out in a cold sweat.

I work with salespeople and executives. Despite their seemingly confident exterior personas, many of them live in constant fear.

Some organizations (and bosses) believe that fear is a good motivator. But this belief, like so many others we have about work, is misguided.

Fear works in the short term. It can kick-start someone into action, but it's not a sustainable source of motivation. An employee motivated by fear will frantically fly around with lots of activity, but then one of two things happens: that person either flames out, or the activity propels him or her to some level of success. Then the fear subsides, and the rep goes back to doing what he or she always did, leaving you with mid-level performance at best.

For example, here's a situation I frequently encounter in my work with sales organizations:

Imagine Joe, he's a salesperson who is afraid of not making quota. His boss is all over him about the numbers. When the boss goes with him on sales calls, what do you think Joe Salesperson is thinking about? Is he thinking about how he can help the customer? Probably not, more likely he's thinking about his boss. He's wondering, "How does my boss think I'm doing? Am I going to get fired?"

When you're afraid of the boss, it messes with your internal talk track. Instead of being fully present for the situation you're in, you have two talk tracks going at the same time. One is about what's happening in the moment. But the other talk track, the more dominant one, is worry and angst about the boss.

Which internal talk track do you think results in better performance? Focusing on the situation in front of you, or worrying about the boss?

If you guessed focusing on the situation in front of you, you're right. My workplace research, along with several other studies, have demonstrated that fear has a chilling effect on performance, particularly for employees who interact with customers.

You don't make good decisions when you're afraid. You tend to focus on the short term, and you don't come from a place of confidence.

A leader's job is to take fear off the table. The most effective way to quell fear is to infuse people with a common sense of purpose.

Whether it's improving life customers, or making the world a better place for everyone, when people have a larger purpose than just trying to keep their jobs, they're more focused, and more effective. They're also more likely to act in a bold and courageous manner.

Instead of telling people they're going to get fired if they don't perform, it's far more powerful (and effective) to tell them how much their performance matters to others.

Purpose -- it trumps fear every time.

Lisa Earle McLeod is author of "Selling with Noble Purpose: How to Drive Revenue and Do Work That Makes You Proud."