14 March 2009

Fear and loathing

I found this post in my drafts form about a year ago. A similar theme to one I posted last month. It appears to be a recurring theme! Anyway, here is what I was thinking a year ago.

The other day I was thinking about how marketers use fear to make people buy things. It’s a really simple and easy way to get people motivated. (See John Kotter’s model on change management for a perspective on this.)

Fear really does seem to motivate people more than positive sentiments. Which of the following sentences has the more powerful message?

Smoke and die a horrible death.
Quite smoking and enjoy a healthy body longer.

This reflection led me to think about how people are motivated at work.

There is an aspiration for workers to come in and be intrinsically motivated by the work. And there is also a worldview that work is something we have to put up with in order to get the things we want (money, prestige, power, etc.)

This is the essence of the Theory X and Y on management by Douglas McGregor.

Organisational and behavioural theory has moved on, and we are encouraged to be a lot more situational and holistic these days.

We are treated (cursed?) with particularly interesting jobs and so something called Theory Z applies to us.

Theory Z is a model that says “If the organisation can make the work interesting and fulfilling our workers will enjoy it more and thus be more loyal to the company.

There are a few caveats to this model for you and me.
As people who go from project to project our loyalty is more likely to be to the project team than to the organisation, but not always. It depends on our relationship with our employer. And the degree to which we are satisfied and challenged will not be binary and it will change over time.
Anyway, two points on this topic.

1. Project team members seem to almost never quit midway through a project. Why is this? Are we really that motivated? I expect so, as our jobs really are challenging, interesting and rewarding (Sometimes.)
2. So many other people seem to be motivated by maintaining the status quo, so they can keep their jobs safe, hold the power and authority they have gradually built up, not have to deal with change (=risk.)

What’s up with that?

Maybe management should project-ize everything so the staff can be really engaged with the work.


  1. Anonymous7:30 pm

    I think there is a big difference between fear and motivation as driving factors for your actions. Fear can drive your behavior only for a short time. You cannot live in constant fear - you will go crazy or die. On the other hand, motivation is like faith - it is a long-term stimulus for your actions and thus it always brings better results in the long run.

    Fear will make you bring umbrella with you every time it rains. Motivation will make you enjoy the rain.

  2. Anonymous11:35 pm

    "Project team members seem to almost never quit midway through a project."

    I think that the type of the task is partially responsible for that. Working on a project makes you see some kind of deadline. It's like specific milestone where you completed your job and haven't started another one yet. You can imagine that like a kind of series of smaller engagements instead of one long-term job. Heck, contractors work like that - that's their bread and butter.

    On the other hand our loyalty to the project can be harmed by sick work environment. When a project manager knows she'll be blamed for failure of project which just can't be anything like success (even a tiny one) she'll do much to avoid being there when the project is finished. Actually one of my past employers screwed atmosphere so much that they achieved "hot potato" situation when looking for a PM for the biggest and the most prestigious project of the year. No one wants to be the parent of failure. One person even synchronized her leaving to be sure she'll be gone before the project can reach acceptance tests phase.