Fear as a Motivator?
I have a friend who had a massive heart attack in her mid forties which resulted in a quadruple bipass. Recovering from that trauma and needing to deal with an additional diagnosis of diabetes, she was told in no uncertain terms she had to change her stressful, sedentary lifetyle immediately if she wanted to continue to live.
So she quit smoking and fast food and got exercising and made room for better balance in her life by changing jobs. And then about a year later, when she got busy with work again, she tried wine-tasting as a hobby that then slowly turned into a social life that drew her back to smoking and before she knew it, she was back at all her old habits again.
Even though she knew she was significantly increasing her chances of an early death. And it's not that she was suicidal. Not at all. But the scare of the hospitals and doctors was simply now fading and the fear of possible ill health was losing out over pleasure in the immediate moment.
Maybe you have seen a version of this same dynamic in your life. Someone is given a harsh ultimatum about their health that gets them changing initially but the fear loses its punch as time goes on.
Or perhaps you have heard the US stats for ex-convicts who re-offend. You might think that the harsh reality of going back to prison would be a strong dissuader but in fact, 67.5% are re-arrested within 3 years. and that is not an imagined horrible outcome, they have been to prison before and know how bad it is!
So, fear can motivate us. but only for a short time.
Fear's purpose is to keep us safe. It is a mechanism designed to help us avoid an unwanted situation or sprint to safety. But constant fear in the workplace leads to worry and stress and no one produces their best work from that constricted place. It's just not possible. Fear actually takes us into the reptilian part of the brain where we lose access to 10 - 15 points of our IQ.
Studies have shown that extrinsic motivators like fear of punishment are only effective in environments where the work lacks inherent meaning or potential for creativity like factory floors where only simple, repetitive tasks are required.
To be truly motivated, we need purpose, hope, incentives, dreams. The carrot as it were. High performance comes from a desire to thrive, not just survive. If we have purpose and feel what we are working on is significant, it is amazing what sort of creativity and innovation and energy come from that kind of intrinsic inspiration. You know this from your own experiences. When you are excited about working on something and have an outcome in mind that you are passionate about, focusing on what you do want is energizing down to your every cell.
And yet you may worry that : if you let go of the old fear-based belief that has actually helped fuel your productivity until now, and so is partly responsible for your success, if you let go of that, perhaps you will have a nicer time of it but ... be just as successful - or even moreso - without that fear firing up your belly each day? Unlikely!
It is indeed scary to let go of one thing before the next sure thing has solidified.. That will take a decision on your part that this new way feels true to you. And then to trust that.
The good news is you are not relying on blind trust, all the latest research in neuroscience agrees. Our pre-frontal cortex that does all our complex thinkng and decision-making is like goldilocks in that it needs just the right balance of stress/stimulation. Not enuf or too much stimulation then we experience foggy thinking, poor impulse control, lack of empathy and poor memory. Just the right amount and we get significantly more competent at being goal-focused, thinking through abstract concepts, memory retrieval, decision-making, understanding what others are thinking & delaying gratification.
Like, remember we talked about the zone? It is an easy illustration that a certain amount of "good" stress is necessary to get us performing at our peak. But too much or "bad" stress pushes us beyond and then our performance nosedives. So then we need to dial it back from that fear-based place & make adjustments.
Remember your group's answers at Kingbridge to the question 'where do you have your best ideas?' Your answers ranged from when I am driving, in the shower, falling asleep, working out... the majority of responses to where you have your best ideas were all in relaxed places where you were dialed back and simply not that stressed.
So the most enduring motivator as well as an immediate way to spend more time in the zone and maximize our brain power is : to have purpose. To know why you are getting out of bed each day, why you are doing the job you do, what is important about that for you, what your goals are, what you are lookng forward to and working toward and what you will do today/this week to that end. And that those dreams are forcing you to stretch and grow yourself, challenging you to learn new things and therefore grow the people around you too, so we all keep moving forward on purpose.
Now, that's Leadership!