Employee Motivation: Fear is Not a Motivator

By: Eli Broad

Excerpted with permission of the publisher John Wiley & Sons, Inc. from The Art of Being Unreasonable: Lessons in Unconventional Thinking by Eli Broad. Copyright (c) 2012 by Eli Broad. This book is available at all bookstores and online booksellers.

When it comes to motivating people, fear is as overrated as praise. I don’t use it because it’s disrespectful of employees. What’s the point in demonstrating over and over that you’re more powerful than they are?

I also don’t believe in explosions of temper. For one thing, emotion clouds your judgment.

What Doesn’t Motivate Employees
If your emotional outbursts simply provoke another emotional reaction — like fear — nobody benefits.

I don’t casually tell people their jobs are at stake. I don’t raise my voice, and I rarely curse. People know when I’m unhappy. But I don’t express displeasure over failure if it’s preceded by serious effort toward one of my unreasonable goals.

This means my employees are never afraid to try and to fail. I still believe the same thing I said to Jay Wintrob when he first started: “Show me a person with an unblemished track record and I’ll show you a person who has dramatically underachieved.”

There is a lot to be said for batting .600. If you’re doing 10 things and only 4 are failing, that’s pretty good.

Allowing Employees to Fail and Grow
Many of my senior employees, in fact, talk about my willingness to let them fail as long as they learn from the experience.

Very early on in attorney Deborah Kanter’s career with our foundation, I asked her to handle the purchase of some land from another major non-profit institution. Her background was in tax and intellectual property, and the lawyers for the seller put something over on us.

Although she had pushed beyond her expertise, Deborah felt she should have caught the sellers’ maneuver. She came to me to report it, fully expecting to be fired. She told me precisely what had happened and that it was possibly too late to do anything about it.

I sat and thought for a minute. Then I said, “Well, I’m supposed to be the real estate expert. I should have caught it too. Let’s see what we can do to mitigate any damage.” We just moved on.

In the end, it turned out that we were able to fix the initial problem. Deborah went on to tackle even more tasks outside her comfort zone. Most recently, she took on managing the construction of The Broad [see Author Bio below].

If you let your employees fail without punishment, you’ll win their loyalty, their hardest effort, and their willingness to take risks with you. No one will resort to finger-pointing or cover-ups.

Think about the last time fear motivated you to do something well, to exceed your limits, or to really contribute. I’m guessing you won’t recall a positive experience. Fear does not inspire loyalty, creativity, or genuine commitment. It’s a waste of time.

Whether You Succeed or Fail, Keep Moving
If you don’t reach your goal, or achieve only part of it, there’s no shame. That’s what’s great about an unreasonable goal — even when you miss it, you’ll probably get farther than you ever thought possible.

If you fail, just figure out why, learn your lessons, and move on to the next thing.

And if you succeed, I recommend doing exactly the same thing: move on. Nothing breeds complacency quite like a string of successes.

In that sense, success and failure can be equally dangerous — one can immobilize you with self-satisfaction and the other can paralyze you with fear. Think of them both as preparation for the next unreasonable challenge and use what you’ve learned to tackle it.

Author Bio
Eli Broad
is an entrepreneur, philanthropist and the founder of two Fortune 500 companies, KB Homes and SunAmerica. He and his wife have been the driving force behind a genomic medicine research powerhouse – the Broad Institute of Harvard and MIT — and three stem cell research centers in California. He and his wife Edythe are building The Broad, a new contemporary art museum in the heart of downtown Los Angeles.