In business, fear can be a positive motivator, such as fear of not making the numbers, fear of losing market share, fear of losing a customer or key account, fear of losing an investment if you do not perform, fear of losing one’s job, or fear of losing the business itself. Love fear. It will save your life. Embrace it, look for it, and spread it around—but in a good way. It does not have to be toxic at all. It is just, said another way, basic awareness of the brutal facts of reality. These are what are called “reality consequences”: “If I don’t perform, I won’t like the results.” So, perform. This kind of fear also adds to the good-stress performance curve.
The way the curve works is that as stress goes up, performance goes up—until a certain point. If the stress gets too high, the curve goes the other way and performance diminishes. In other words, when the stakes are high, we get better—at least until the risks become too much to handle, and we freak out or shut down. This is why seasoned professional golfers, the ones with the highest skills and the most experience handling high-stakes events, tend to perform best in the U.S. Open or the Masters. For rookie players, the pressure is often just too great, and they “choke” just when they need to play their best. For the seasoned champion, on the other hand, the pressure brings out his best and he rises to the occasion—and wins.
In golf or any other sport, you can probably name the clutch performers and the clutch chokers. If we could peer inside the chokers’ heads, you can bet we’d hear a lot of negative chatter clogging the channels and creating stress that is causing the brain shutdown.
Reality consequences establish good boundaries that increase performance. They come in two categories: positive and negative, and both instill good and healthy fear. The negative ones motivate the brain to action, because you need to perform in order not to lose things like customers, investment, the job, or the company. When I was growing up in Mississippi, the plantation owners really performed in early fall to get the cotton and soybeans out of the fields before flooding rains destroyed a whole year’s harvest, leaving millions of dollars stuck in the mud where no tractor could go. Negative consequences can drive good fear.
Boundaries for Leaders: The Power of Positive Consequences
But life is not all about avoiding negative consequences. There are positive reality consequences that increase performance as well—such as helping more customers, closing more deals, reaching transcendent goals, watching results rise, growing the company, increasing value, earning bonuses and promotion. Good stress pushes people to do great things, much greater than if there were no consequence to their actions. Just watch any winner of a sports event receive the trophy, and you will usually see several motivating forces (positive stressors) at work: the raising of the trophy as a symbol of the pride; the rewards and fulfillment of doing well; the tears that reveal the way the heart is overcome with humility, gratitude, and love; and the embrace of family and friends who made the dream a reality. These relational drivers can be even more powerful than traditional incentives.
Think, for instance, of what motivates a salesperson. You can be sure that the promise of a big commission drives his performance toward positive consequences. But you can also be sure that other factors are motivating that performance—things like the satisfaction of having mastered the skills of selling after years of effort, or the mental picture of his child graduating from college that the commission will pay for, or the high five he exchanges with his older brother or his father when he shares his success, or the sense of having contributed to a team effort in a way that is consistent with personal values. Put all of these factors together, and you get some strong positive consequences.
These two sets of reality consequences—the promise of positive outcomes and the fear of losing something of value—are among the most fundamental drivers of human performance. Use them together, and you have a formula for leading others toward great things. Talk both about the bad things that will happen if we don’t get with it, and the good things that will happen if we do. “If we don’t get this product out there, the competition is going to overtake our market share. But if we do, we are going to win over a lot of theirs. Let’s go!” That is a lot better than yelling at people and making them feel “bad.”
But remember that rewards and reality consequences also interact with other organizational and interpersonal dynamics. Of course, if we were rats, then shocks and snacks would be all we need. But humans need more than that to give them the power and freedom to excel. Yet one thing is sure. A healthy sense of the positive realities that will come about, along with a healthy awareness of the losses we will incur if we don’t perform, are good for getting things done. They are a lot more powerful than toxic fear.
Boundaries for Leaders: Preserve Relationships and Get Results
As the person in charge of setting emotional boundaries, your job as a leader is twofold. First, do everything possible to create “good fear,” the positive performance anxiety that activates healthy stress. The drive that says, “If I get with it, I can get something good and avoid something bad.” Second, diminish destructive fear, which is communicated through tone, lack of structure, and the threat of relational consequences—anger, shame, guilt, and withdrawal of support.
People need to know that you are going to be “for” them, even when they don’t do well. Think of it this way. What if your child thought that you would not love her if she made a mistake or did not perform to your expectations? What if when she made a mistake, you got angry, or gave her the silent treatment, or withheld love from her? What if she felt like there was no way to make you proud of her? And what if there were no structured expectations? What do you think that would do to her ability to learn? To thrive? To grow? And to perform?
When we put it in that context, it becomes pretty obvious. Yet sometimes we overlook the power that positive relational security can have on performance, but it is there, and it matters.
A few years ago I watched an interview with a very young Olympic gold medal winner whose performance at the games had surpassed and surprised all of the coaches, experts, and commentators. When asked what she attributed her performance to that year, she noted that everything changed one day as a result of a conversation she’d had with her parents. They had noticed the stress that she was under and how at times she would get nervous to the degree that it was affecting her ability to do her best. They sat her down, as she explained in the interview, and reminded her that it was OK if she made a mistake, if she didn’t win, or if she blew it.
Don’t worry about it, they emphasized, and reminded her that they would love her just as much if she made a mistake, fell off the bar, or otherwise blew it. With uncharacteristic wisdom for someone so young, she went on to say that knowing that failing was OK made her able to succeed. She didn’t have to worry about what her parents were going to think, and the security of that relationship freed her up to just think about what she was doing, and to do what she was focused on doing. In other words, there were no relational consequences to making a mistake. They would not shame her, be angry, hate her, or withdraw support. So she was free to use every mistake as a learning opportunity and free to do the best she could at any moment.
That is what people need from their leaders, the knowledge that their leader is for their success, and if a mistake is made, that leader will stand beside them and help them learn and improve, not punish them. Similarly, people need a culture in which leaders drive people to “get better,” instead of driving them to be perfect or avoid making mistakes. Research shows that a “getting better” orientation goes much further than a “being perfect” orientation.
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