Leaders Use Opportunity, Not Fear, to Motivate

Man and woman colleagues drawing plan

Using fear to motivate people is cheap leadership. Any two-bit dictator can use fear to get things done. It takes no finesse or intelligence and ultimately works against the leader. The temporary spike in motivation from stoking people’s fears is offset by the long-term impacts of deep resentment, performance-draining anxiety, and ill-will. More evolved and thoughtful leaders choose to pull people toward the behaviors they want, instead of pushing them away from the behaviors they don’t want.

Fear vs. Excitement

Fear and excitement prompt the same neurological responses. Think for a moment about what happens to you, physiologically, when you are really, really afraid. Your heart races, your palms sweat, your breath gets faster and shorter, and your stomach teems with butterflies. Fear and excitement are both high-arousal states.

More evolved and thoughtful leaders choose to pull people toward the behaviors they want, instead of pushing them away from the behaviors they don’t want.

Although there are almost no neurological or physiological differences, there is one critical distinction between the conditions of fear and excitement—you experience fear as displeasure and excitement as pleasure. Thus, you move towards situations that provide pleasure and avoid situations that provoke displeasure. By viewing and explaining situations as opportunities, you create a field of excitement where employees are more apt to face challenges then shirk them.

Women colleagues working at lunch

Focusing on opportunity instead of problems is not just a matter of semantics. The following are some specific impacts of keeping an opportunity focus.

Opportunity pulls.

Leading by stoking people’s fears provokes anxiety and negative thoughts of impending painful consequences. Opportunities, on the other hand, are hopeful situations that evoke positive thoughts of pleasurable rewards. Leadership is most effective when it moves people toward a desired outcome, rather than getting them to run away from a bad outcome. Opportunity attracts; fear repels.

Opportunity points in the right direction.

When you are talking about opportunities, you are talking about the conditions you want, instead of the conditions you want to prevent from happening. Because outcomes often follow the direction of our thoughts, it’s best to focus on what you want. Saying, “Our opportunity is to keep the ball in the air,” is better than, “Whatever you do, don’t drop that ball!”

Opportunity activates imagination.

We “take advantage of” or “capitalize on” opportunities. They are conditions that don’t yet exist and require people’s hard work and imagination to be fully exploited.

Work team celebrating achievement

Opportunity inspires courage.

Opportunities are not “sure things” and the positive outcome you hope to create is not guaranteed. Thus, opportunities come with potential risks. The risk is what infuses the pursuit of opportunities with excitement.

Opportunity begets opportunity.

Wouldn’t you rather have your employees coming to you with new ideas and opportunities they want you to support, instead of problems they want you to resolve? When you model opportunistic thinking, you increase the likelihood of building a self-sufficient, “can-do” spirit among employees.

By viewing and explaining situations as opportunities, you create a field of excitement where employees are more apt to face challenges then shirk them.

If you want workers to act like adults, you have to lead like an adult. Instead of constantly drawing their attention to the bad things that will happen if they mess up, work with them to identify the actions and priorities that will increase their likelihood of succeeding. Remind them that taking on challenges is how leaders earn their merit badges at work. Be sure to specify what rewards they can expect if they succeed—including the chance to be involved in more opportunities. Pulling people toward good behavior instead of threatening them out of bad behavior is a healthier and more mature way of leading.


Like what you’ve read? Check out my book, Leaders Open Doors.

About Bill Treasurer

Bill Treasurer is the author of The Leadership Killer, Reclaiming Humility in an Age of Arrogance, which he co-wrote with Captain John “Coach” Havlik, Navy SEAL (Retired). For the last two decades, Treasurer has worked with thousands of leader across the globe, at such organizations as NASA, Saks Fifth Avenue, Lenovo, UBS Bank, the Pittsburgh Pirates, and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Learn more at: www.LeadershipKiller.com.

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