Why Fear Flatlines a Team, and What to Do Instead

Is fear a good motivator? It can be.

Many years ago, my old boss said, “If you really want to get people to do something, make them afraid.” He wasn’t wrong. Fear does prompt people to act. The problem is, they’re only acting to alleviate the fear. When the threat subsides, they go back to their old ways.

Fear of failure will jumpstart activity; yet it has a chilling effect on long-term behavior. Fear ignites your amygdala, the most primal, self-serving part of your brain, often called the lizard brain. The lizard brain has one job, protect your safety and your ego at all costs. When your lizard brain has been hijacked by fear, your personal short-term interests trump everything else.

Have you ever been afraid of a boss, parent or teacher? If so, you know exactly what I’m talking about. Whether it’s scrambling to please the volatile boss or trying to clean up before your angry parent gets home, you run around like a crazy person trying to do “the thing.” But you’ve not really bought it, and you likely don’t understand why the task even matters. You’re just trying to keep yourself out of trouble.

Fear makes you frantic. You want people (including yourself) to be focused instead. Fear causes people to fail because when you’re afraid you:

  • Think only of the short-term
  • Are less creative
  • Don’t ask insightful questions
  • Think about yourself more than your team or customers
  • Worry about covering mistakes instead of fixing them
  • Resist the unknown
  • Tell the boss what he or she wants to hear
  • Fail to connect in a meaningful way

Martin Luther King once said, “We must build dikes of courage to hold back the flood of fear.”  History is filled with examples of men and women who overcame fear and adversity on behalf of something bigger than themselves.  When you come from a place of fear, you don’t make good decisions.

Instead, if you’re facing a challenge like an uncertain economic future, or you have even bigger worries, like health and safety, build a dike of courage by tapping into something bigger than your own interest. Maybe it’s the idea of helping your family, your team or your customers get through a challenging time.

Focusing on a cause bigger than yourself, gives you the courage to act. I’ve experienced this first-hand. When my husband and I lost a business during the recession, and were facing a bankruptcy, what got me through it was thinking about my family, specifically my kids, and what I wanted for them on the other side of this.

As a leader, your job is to take fear off the table, for yourself and for your team. Whether you’re informally leading a small team, running your family, or you have an entire company, or even country counting on you, if you can rally people around a cause bigger than themselves, you’ll bring out their best. A leader who takes fear off the table creates a team that:

  • Stays focused
  • Are long-term strategists
  • Fixes mistakes
  • Are team, customer and constituent oriented
  • Tells the boss what he or she needs to hear
  • Connected to each other in a meaningful way.

A leader who keeps their own lizard brain at bay, is able to make better decisions. Fear is a given, in work and life. It’s how you act in response to fear that determines your success and your legacy.