We respond to threat or fear very naturally.
In fact fear seems to be our topmost motivation. Smart leaders know this and they implement it around them very well. And the "heads" side of the coin is that it is a very good motivator. Let's discuss with a few examples why it is important to consciously realize the importance of fear perception as a motivation.
- Let's consider the cleanliness quotient of any city in an advanced nation—say the US. .The quotient (high or low) is largely determined by the people of the city, residents or visitors. Someone knows that to maintain order, a perception of threat against cleanliness violators is required. Why? It's an easy assumption that not everyone has noble intentions. People with noble intentions will keep the city clean anyway. Others will not unless there's some fine, some punishment, pain, or embarrassment in some form. This threat, if perceived as real, works wonders; the credit goes to the way it is implemented, spread as a rule and followed. The leadership here mainly cares about noble actions, as they know they cannot expect miracles in expecting noble intentions from everyone—certainly not an overnight change of heart. A threat perception of punishment!
- Let's say a team of 22 software developers gather to deliver a project of 18 months duration in a software company. The leader understands that there's a mix of people—not all are passionate about the progress of the company, etc. For appropriate and consistent output, the leader has to implement a threat perception that goes beyond the general HR rules. It may be some variant of performance-based growth in a role or introduction of smaller period bonuses etc. Consciously or subconsciously, every employee would welcome the extra recognition, extra money, as it would perhaps satisfy some real need or validate their ego or simply make them happy. Whatever it might be, ambitious people caring only about themselves would attempt to contribute more for fear of losing out on the extra bonus or extra goodies put in place by the leader. This increases the probability of the project being well executed—problem solved. A threat perception of competition!
- Most parents have told this to their child: "No TV or games if you don't finish your meal!" That's a clear case of direct threat perception. How many times has this worked? Not always, you might agree, as it's very difficult to implement this as a consistent rule with your child, especially when you're not consciously thinking of this statement as an example of applying threat perception. Most long-lasting effects require subtle treatment, not the too-obvious instant-relief-cure. I have heard a father deal with a similar situation by going into fantasy storytelling. The story was fabricated to very subtly talk about a kid who falls sick because he does not eat well, leading to tiny-soldiers-in-the-blood not having enough strength to fight the illness, resulting in the kid not able to play or watch TV. This father employed a technique leaving most of the analysis to the child's imagination, and it registered well, and stayed longer; well, long enough! A threat perception of boredom!
Threat can work wonders but it can backfire too. The other side of the coin is seen when someone goes overboard in pushing the fear. This is not a good motivator and does not yield the desired and sustained results. Alternate examples to the above would be: a city where corrupt rule makers are open about bribery for people to avoid punishment; a team where unreasonable competitive standards just result in heavy attrition; and a kid who fakes a stomach-ache or nausea to avoid the obvious.