How Fear Motivates Employees

A consistent phrase of managerial advice is to “light a fire under” your employees.  The idea being that the best way to create an intense sense of urgency is to bring fear into the equation to enact a primal instinct to resolve a situation that threatens safety.
This is absolutely true.  Fear is probably the most powerful motivator there is.

A Bit of Neuroscience on Why Fear is So Powerful

The part of the brain that you want your employees using the most is their prefrontal cortex.  The PFC, at the front of your brain above your eyeballs, is unique to humans and controls things like cognition, error monitoring and our ability to adapt to changing environments.
A little further back is the amygdala, which is there to, among other things, help provide a reaction to stimulus of the outside world. Directly connected to your sensory inputs, that chill you get when you see a shadow in a dark alley is your amygdala kicking a physiological response into gear… because you may need to run soon and there will be no time for warming up.
The amygdala does other, less scary, things but it’s primarily studied for how it handles fear.  Mainly, the emotional and physiological response it drives when fear triggers are present.
Your amygdala is also connected to your PFC, so you can have the same physiological response to indirect safety threats (financial security, personal safety net, etc.) as you do to a big scary thing.  For instance, imagine your brain’s response if your boss asks “can you come to my office to talk” and when you get there, the SVP of human resources is also waiting for you.
You don’t see a hungry tiger, or hear a growl, but your PFC can tell your amygdala logical reasons why this isn’t good: “you could get fired… then you’ll have no money for food or shelter.”  Once fear is initiated, all your amygdala can really do is help you react to it.

The Road Between PFC and Amygdala is Mainly a One-Way

Joseph LeDoux, neuroscience professor at NYU and author of The Emotional Brain, puts Safety needs ahead of your Physiological needs, because you can temporarily put off other species-survival items (food, sex, etc.). But there is an immediacy to fear that gives it a precedent in your brain.  The bad news for both the employee and the employer is that when your amygdala is active, your PFC isn’t functioning at full speed. 
Once fear has been initiated, you don’t review the triggers in a logical and reasonable manner, your only goal is to survive the threat.  And your amygdala doesn’t really reach back out to your PFC to determine your best course of action, it just moves forward with the information it has.

The Problem with Fear in the Office

The amygdala was critical to your survival when other tribes coming into your village to steal your cattle (or worse) was a major concern.  In a modern and much less violent setting, like your office, its sudden adrenal rush in response to a safety threat is actually counterproductive.
By indirectly threatening an employee with their means of making a living as a catalyst for output, you’ve achieved your intended response of making what you want done a critical priority to them via an involuntary response. A reverse-carrot, if you will, but now the stick is the motivator.
Instead of recognizing or rewarding employees for a job well done, you’re scaring them into thinking they may end up without a paycheck if they don’t perform.  I’ve even heard some executives say things like “good, that means they’ll be motivated” when speaking in regard to employees with financial stress.  
Beyond being assholes, those executives are missing the broader point: happy and stable employees are better performing employees (as discussed in a prior post).  And making employees happy isn’t the only side to the productivity scale.  Overly-stressed employees, who are not fully utilizing their prefrontal cortex, are going to make bad decisions.
By enacting fear as a motivator, you dilute their impact to your bottom line.

Fear is Diluting All of Your Culture Efforts

Going back to Maslow’s Hierarchy again, many HR departments have put a focus on higher level human needs like Belonging and Esteem.  I agree with that philosophy for motivation.  Helping your employees to see how they impact output and recognizing that contribution, has been proven to be effective.
However, if your company is using fear as a way to temporarily drive output, the intended benefit of corporate culture efforts are greatly diluted by short-sighted and ineffective management practices.

Leverage Employee Neurological Response for Good

Here’s the exciting thing about the amygdala… you can leverage it the same way Pavlov used the dinner bell with his dogs.  And LeDoux goes on to say it can be utilized “to drive goal directed behavior” in the brain (the last time these things happened, I got a reward).
Essentially, the carrot and the stick both fire synapses in the same neighborhood. However, leveraging your employee’s response to aversive stimuli will not yield the same long-term results as would stimulating their amygdala with consistent rewards.