Does Your Manager Use Fear to Motivate? Try This

fear motivate

“I don’t mind that he criticizes my work, but I feel like he is threatening to fire me every time.”

So complained one of my train buddies (once people hear that you write about careers, you just can’t stop the lamenting about their bosses).

“Lawyers pick apart other lawyer’s reasoning,” she said. “I’m used to that.” But her manager adds little phrases such as, “I don’t know what will happen if things don’t change,” or “I’m not sure this is working out.”

This friend happens to be a highly intelligent woman with an Ivy League law degree and two decades of experience. She also loves her job and works, uncomplainingly, long hours because she is committed to the clients she represents. After a few weeks of feeling anxious and upset about her manager’s feedback, she asked outright if he was putting her on notice.

He said no. Perhaps he is or perhaps he isn’t. His message is so unclear that he may genuinely believe fear will motivate her to do better. Or he may be laying the groundwork to fire her.

Many leaders aren’t aware how negatively their feedback is received. Only 10% of CEOs claim to use fear as a motivator, but executives say fear is the primary motivational tool their CEOs use, according to a new survey of 1,500 CEOs, executives and employers from CEO.com and Domo, a business-services platform.

Both executives and employees in the survey say instilling vision is the most effective motivational strategy, with fear ranking last. But they feel their leaders are just too negative. One sign of that negative culture: 46% of executives said they need to massage and manipulate data to make it look good before handing it over to their CEOs. That’s not helping anybody.

How to Handle Negative Feedback

If your boss is among those who lead through fear, knowingly or not, you need to protect yourself from negativity as best you can. One approach is to start setting boundaries.

In Thanks for the Feedback, co-authors Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen advise employees who are being constantly criticized or feel threatened to try to establish some guidelines with their managers. “You can’t assume people understand what’s going on with you, or how there feedback is making you feel,” the co-authors write.

Whether your managers should be doing a better job managing you, or should know how you feel about the comments they make doesn’t really matter. The person who cares most about how you feel is you. Plus, we each respond to feedback in our own particular way, based as much on our own temperament and triggers. Stone and Heen (also the authors of Difficult Conversations) say if someone’s criticism is upsetting you, speak up. Let them know what you are feeling and how you would prefer working with them to improve your performance.

To get the results you want, the authors advise employees to be specific about three things:

  1. The request. What exactly are you asking of them? In my friend’s case, her request would be for her manager to stop appearing to threaten her job. Be clear that you want and appreciate feedback, but that how it is being delivered is a problem for you. You might ask someone to  stop making feedback personal or criticizing you in front of other people. Give your manager examples and explain the impact the statements have on you and your motivation.
  2. The time frame. If there is an amount of time you will need to respond to a manager’s request or improve your work, talk with them about a clear timetable for your response or improvement. Suggest that you and your manger discuss the issue again in a few weeks or a month to determine what progress you have made.
  3. Their assent. Don’t assume they understand or agree. People often just nod or say ‘yes,” without really hearing what another person is saying, especially during uncomfortable conversations. Ask your manager outright if he understands and if he will honor your request. “They’re making a commitment and that enlists their identity and reputation in living up to their promise,” write Stone and Heen.

About the Author

Susan Price has been writing about careers, entrepreneurs and personal finance for more than a decade. She’s been an editor at BusinessWeek, Money, and iVillage.com, among others.