The Power of Fear

Geoff Smith Portrait

BY Geoff Smith


Why is it that everyone loves to talk about motivating people, but no-one ever talks about the motivating power of fear. How come? It seems to me that fear is the greatest, most consistently active emotion there is, leaving greed, lust, ego and the others in the dust. (I have this pet theory that 'ego' is just fear on display, but we can leave that for the people with actual credentials.)

Maybe it's because fear is seen as a negative, manipulative and destructive motivator. Nobody wants to admit to trying to influence people by using fear tactics (even though everyone has done it), so we just leave it as the unacknowledged elephant in the room. Maybe another answer is that all these people talking about motivation are just as fearful and insecure as the rest of us, so let's just leave the whole thing alone. But why? I have always had this dread of failure and insignificance, which I should probably celebrate. I think that particular fear is the only reason I've actually accomplished anything at all. Fear rules.

I also had something very helpful occur to me in my late thirties - I feel compelled to type this. I was very angry at someone, but there was one nagging fact: They hadn't actually done anything wrong. And I finally realized: It wasn't anger, it was fear. That bit of self knowledge made a huge difference (I didn't conquer my fears, but I'm hoping I at least became a nicer person; and likely better at my job). If you don't understand what's driving your own behavior, how much help can you be to others?

But I'm more concerned here with how we treat (sorry, motivate) each other. And let's forget about the jerk who is trying to manipulate others by using their power to instill fear. They will hit a low ceiling and never succeed anyway.

But there is the other side of the coin. If we can make the effort to understand other people's fears - the people we work with, work for, live with, all of them - and we make that understanding a key part of our relationship, what would happen then? Even if we don't know what their fears are (even if they don't), but at least take the time to think about what they might be, how much progress could be made on every front?

Or this: If our relationship with our clients was not based on price, not even on great quality or service, but on the reliable elimination of their fears (like, for example, their fear of getting fired), how powerful would that be? How much of a premium would they happily pay?

The psychologists will tell you that our most basic need is physiological - eating and breathing. But right after that and way before everything else - love, self esteem, you name it - is our need for security. The need for an absence of fear. What if all of our relationships - personal and business - were based on providing that security rather than threatening to take it away? How 'motivating' would that be?

Thanks for reading.