Fear or Love

Fear or Love by Dr. Robert Gerwig

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John lived in terror of his boss. He visibly started shaking every time the 3-star general called him to his office. … Carol, on the other hand, was thrilled whenever she had the opportunity to spend time with her boss, working on projects, developing strategies, or discussing pressing issues.

The question – a classic in studies of leadership – is which is the better motivator? Fear or love? Does an organization (and the individuals in it) respond better to a leader who is feared or loved?

No, this brief article will not provide THE definitive answer. No empirical research study was conducted. Nor do I plan to write a book about this topic. However, after studying leadership and human behavior for more than 25 years, I do have a subjective opinion, an “answer” if you will. An answer based on observation, study, and practice. The answer? It depends. … Sometimes fear is the better motivator. Sometimes love is the better motivator. At the risk of oversimplifying, let me attempt to explain.

As a result of their behavior, people all over the world either want something OR they want to avoid something. Let’s call the “something” a consequence. So, people behave a certain way in order to achieve, or avoid, a given consequence. These consequences have characteristics. They consequences can take place now or in the future. They can be certain or uncertain. They can be strong or weak. Additionally, these consequences can be external (visible, seen, physical) or they can be internal (hidden, emotional, unseen).

You and I behave in certain ways in order to get or avoid consequences that can be immediate/future, strong/weak, certain/uncertain, visible/invisible. Yep, that’s all there is to it. … Bonus: High achievers continually adjust their behaviors to achieve the results (consequences) they want. Successful leaders continually adjust and refine their actions based on their results.

So, where are we? Is fear or love the stronger motivator? It depends. … Fear can be a great motivator. We try to avoid negative consequences – pain, embarrassment, losing our job, getting yelled at, working on a holiday. Many achievers get great results because they’re trying to avoid being a failure (in their own eyes or the eyes of others). Many A-types are driven by failure-avoidance. They’re motivated by fear. … Love is also a great motivator. We’re trying to receive positive consequences – affection, love, admiration of another. We desire their approval, their love. Love is an amazing motivator. We’re motivated to do amazing things for those we love: our parents, our spouse, our children, our co-workers, our Savior.

While fear usually motivates at a level that just keeps us out of trouble, love motivates at a higher level. For example, if I’m told I’ll be fired if I don’t turn in 3 suggestions to my boss, I’m likely to turn in 3 (ok, maybe 4). On the other hand, if I “love” my boss and want to please him, I’m likely to turn in more than 3 suggestions (especially if he helps me understand how this helps the organization and my co-workers whom I also “love”). Fear motivates at some level of compliance (this can be a very high level based on where the bar is set). And love has the potential to motivate at a much higher level because there’s really no bar. … There you have it. That’s it.

Which is the better motivator, Fear or Love? It’s both. It depends. … AND, they often go hand-in-hand. For example, if I “love” my boss, I want to avoid his displeasure AND I want to win his “love.” I want to avoid losing my job AND I want to be recognized for my achievements. I want to avoid being the low sales guy in the company AND I want to be at the top of the list.

One final note, fear doesn’t equate to a lack of love or relationship. When my children were little, there were some “non-negotiables.” For instance, they couldn’t play soccer in the busy street in front of our house (they had to play in the park or in our backyard). I wanted them to fear the consequences they’d receive if I caught them in the street. I loved (and still do!) my children. That’s exactly why there were strong consequences associated with playing soccer in the busy street. It was BECAUSE I loved them and had a relationship with them that I wanted them to fear me. Make sense?

Maybe a better way to say it is: great leaders want people to FEAR certain consequences (not the leader) and to LOVE them.

Are you motivated more by fear or by love?

I’d love to hear your thoughts. The floor is ALWAYS open.

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