The ways we motivate others and ourselves comes in different forms depending on the scenario. As twisted as it sounds, fear is a common source of motivation for many people, whether they realize it or not.

Fear is used by parents when they threaten to withhold their child’s dessert if they don’t eat their vegetables. Coaches promise an extra day of practice if their team doesn’t perform well. Marketing and advertisements also use fear to scare audiences into believing their message and purchasing an item. Some drive the speed limit out of fear of fines. We get jobs out of fear of poverty. 

The argument here isn’t that fear doesn’t work as a motivator—because it certainly can and does. You bet I ate those ugly looking green things on my plate so I could enjoy a Sponge-Bob popsicle. And I gave that soccer game my all to secure the win. I’ve fallen victim to commercials and advertisements that made me believe I was in danger if I didn’t buy their product. 

Now let’s translate fear-based motivating into a workplace setting…

A boss threatens to fire an employee if their performance doesn’t improve. An employee who requests a sick/personal day is told they won’t get paid if they don’t report to work. A manager scolds workers for small mistakes in public settings.

Sure, if you’re the employee on the other end of these encounters, you’re feeling very motivated to do your best so that you don’t face the negative consequences. But just because motivating with fear works, does that make it healthy, right, or even worth it?

Feelings = Performance

In toxic work environments with tyrannical leadership, employees aren’t left feeling motivated in the traditional sense. Being scolded, threatened, or taking on added pressure doesn’t exactly make you want to smile and say, “Let’s do this!” 

According to “Petty Tyranny in Organizations,” written by psychologist and professor Blake E Ashforth, workers are instead left feeling belittled, stressed, and alienated. Their self-esteem takes a hit as well as their ability to perform. Not only does the individual feel the effects of fear, but cue the ripple effect as now the whole team experiences low work cohesiveness. 

Side Effects 

When you’re experiencing negative emotions as a consequence of fear-based motivation, you’re not in a healthy headspace. Your capacity to think outside the box and problem solve is limited because you’re being weighed down by your feelings of frustration and helplessness. Because of this, your creativity is clogged. Light-bulb moments and genius ideas are typically birthed in settings of positivity and teamwork and safety, all of which cannot grow in alongside fear. 

Fear holds people back from unlocking and expressing their knowledge, says Harvard Business School professor Amy C. Edmondson in an Inc. article. Because of this, employees are handicapped in their ability to learn and apply their knowledge. 

James L. Heskett, a fellow professor of Edmondson, backs up his colleague’s claims. According to Heskett, fear “inhibits learning and cooperation” and supports an “epidemic of silence.” Fear, in the long run, is no motivator at all and will not serve your company well.


Fear may not be the most effective way to motivate yourself or others, but plenty of alternative approaches have proven successful. Reach out to Knowted and keep an eye on our blog for more information.

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