Human beings have always used fear as a motivator.
Many millennia ago, our ancestors developed their sense of fear as a survival tactic. Like other animals, we’re ingrained with a fight-or-flight instinct to keep us out of harm’s way of external threats.
While we no longer have the looming threat of deadly predators, looming layoffs, economic uncertainty, and many other stressors trigger our fear response.
Fear isn’t an inherently negative emotion. When used correctly, it can also be a valuable tool and strong motivator to excel at work or in our personal lives.
Let’s break down the importance of fear and how you can use it to its full potential as one of your most powerful motivators.
What is fear?
We’ve all felt that sinking feeling in our stomach when dread, distress, or panic suddenly washes over our bodies.
Fear is our body’s alert system. When we feel threatened, physically or psychologically, our body automatically sends out a red flag to warn us to protect ourselves by activating our fight-or-flight system.
Active threats to our physical safety or anxiety we feel when we find ourselves in a situation with perceived consequences trigger our nervous system to trigger stress responses that tell our body to fight or flee.
Physical symptoms of a fight-or-flight response may include:
- Increased perspiration
- Accelerated heartbeat
- A sudden rush of adrenaline.
- Hot flushes
- Butterflies in the stomach
- Body trembles
- Accelerated breathing or shortness of breath
- Tightness in the chest
Chemical reactions in the brain that alerts us to fear are also linked to positive emotions, like joy or excitement. This is why one person might love the chills they get when they watch scary movies in the dark or the adrenaline rush of jumping out of a plane, while another might prefer to stay in their comfort zone.
Whether you enjoy an adrenaline rush or not, it’s unhealthy to let our fears become more powerful than the threats. Becoming inundated with feelings of distress could disrupt your mental or physical well-being, leading to problems like mental burnout, physical exhaustion, or clouded decision-making.
The power of fear motivation
Motivation explains human behavior and why we do the things we do. There are two different types of motivation:
- Internal motivation (or intrinsic motivation) comes from within. When an activity aligns with our interests or personal values, we feel motivated by more profound meaning — like volunteering for a charity or dedicating extra work hours to a job we love.
The reward is also internal. Accomplishing an internally motivated goal fills us with joy or contentment. Our volunteer work might make us feel better fulfilled by our contribution to the community, or extra work on a project we feel inspired by might makes us feel like we’re fulfilling our life’s purpose.
- External motivation (or extrinsic motivation) comes from outside us, whether to earn a reward or avoid a punishment.
In our professional lives, both the promise of a promotion and the fear of losing our job could make us work harder or avoid procrastination.
Because of the fleeting nature of most objectives, external motivators are usually temporal and are best for accomplishing short-term goals. A study at Cornell University demonstrated that people are more motivated by the promise of an immediate reward.
Is fear the most powerful motivator?
Fear is one of our most uncomfortable emotions, which is why, for better or worse, it’s one of our most powerful motivators.
Fear is uncomfortable, so we naturally try to move away from fear and closer to our comfort zone. Fear motivates us by compelling us to act. Our behavior might anticipate fear to avoid the consequence or risk, or we might behave differently while we actively feel fear to limit the uncomfortable sensation.
Life is full of fears. Many of us probably share the same worries: fear of failure, getting sick, saying goodbye to a loved one, falling behind on finances, or losing a job are a few big ones. Protecting ourselves from those fears becoming reality motivates us to act a certain way to step away from our discomfort.
Since fear feels visceral and all-encompassing, we should exercise the use of fear as a primary motivator with caution.
Understanding the power that fear has over us will help us act accordingly to avoid becoming paralyzed by fear and making counterproductive decisions toward our goals.
Rather than letting fear guide us, we can break mitigate the discomfort by regulating our emotions with mindfulness and relaxation techniques, practicing positive thinking, or breaking down the problem by mapping out the resolution process with clear goals to avoid making rash decisions.
Use fear as an impulse, not a consequence
Over the last two years, many workers have voluntarily resigned from their jobs in The Great Resignation. It began in the wake of COVID-19 in early 2021 and continues today.
Early hypotheses about the motivation for massive resignation were that workers wanted better pay. But an extensive study from MIT found that the reason for resignation is less pragmatic and more emotional: corporate culture is a more powerful motivator than compensation. A toxic work environment is 10.4 times more powerful than a salary in motivating workers to quit.
Workers might put up with a toxic treatment in the short-term and feel motivated by the fear of consequences to working harder. Maybe you’ve experienced fear being used as a negative emotion at work, like a boss threatening your job security if you don’t meet a sales quota or intimating you into working extra hours.
But continued fear-mongering will likely lead to decreased morale, underperforming, and lower job retention. The use of long-term fear isn’t a proper motivation strategy to reach our goals.
To successfully use fear as a motivator, it must be paired with a solution. It’s better to inspire team members with a new path than instill fear with consequences.
Let’s look at the difference between consequence-based fear motivation and solution-based fear motivation: imagine that sales are down and the monthly quota isn’t far from reach. Rather than threatening overtime or employee job security, offer a solution to reach the sales goal more efficiently, like A/B testing a new online check-out process, pumping up social media posting, or offering promotions to customers.
If employers don’t show how to forge a new path, the fear of failure could cause adverse consequences, like poor performance or worker paralysis. Offering solutions means workers will feel less pressure and more initiative to be creative.
Short and long-term fear motivation
The fear of missing a pending deadline, underperforming on an important presentation, or arriving late for a date you’re excited about are examples of short-term fear motivation that can help us perform better — but only in the short term. Here are some benefits of using fear as a short-term motivator:
Fear is a biological survival response. When we are in the presence of danger, our bodies respond with a fight-or-flight reaction. Your body might feel a sudden pump of adrenaline, your blood pressure could rise, and your learning and memory might even enhance. The flip side is that your body might also temporarily shut down important biological functions, like digestion and growth, to survive.
The fight or flight response is valuable when dealing with real physical danger, but if it chronically clicks on for less-pressing triggers, it’s important to be mindful of the threat and your reaction to it. When your body is suddenly hyper-aware, slow down, gauge the real threat and practice mindfulness to regain control of your physical and emotional state.
By using fear as motivation, you’re facing your fears. Analyzing and confronting your fears will help you know yourself better, grow, and understand that you can overcome self-doubt and build confidence.
Building up our resilience mindset is a vital skill in our professional and personal lives. Fear of sudden change is a natural response, but learned perseverance can transform frightening changes into the growth and development of new skills. When you learn that you can confront fear and accomplish a goal, you’re better prepared to deal with other challenges.
With long-term fear motivation, fears don’t have timelines or clear resolutions. These fears might include the constant fear of losing your job, not making rent, or getting sick.
Long-term fear motivation can have negative impacts and even lead to serious medical conditions, like the following:
1. Development of negative thinking
The constant use of fear as a motivator can create a permanent state of alertness or self-criticism that erodes our self-esteem. Consequently, you may find yourself with chronic stress or anxiety from overwhelming or invasive thoughts that something bad will happen.
2. High cortisol levels
Fear has different reactions in the body. Part of our fight-or-flight response is the release of cortisol, known as the stress hormone. Cortisol is responsible for raising our heart rate and breathing. This is an important biological reaction to a short-term physical threat, but when applied chronically to psychological threats — like missing a deadline or falling short on a presentation — you will likely experience long-term mental and physical well-being.
3. Low productivity
Fear kicks in biological behaviors designed to help us survive life-threatening danger. Although low performance at work might feel like the end of the world, it’s not life-threatening.
But our body struggles to tell the difference and responds to fear and stress with the same stimuli we experience in life-threatening situations. When intrapersonal fears become our primary motivator, we naturally move away from situations that cause discomfort. You might hold back on sharing an idea that is too out-of-the-box, holding back on valuable productivity, creativity, and collaboration.
Use fear to your advantage
Fear is a natural part of life. None of us can escape it. We can all learn to manage it — and even use it to our advantage.
Rather than letting fear overwhelm and paralyze us, we should learn how to detect the difference between good, short-term fear that keeps us creative and bad fear that wears us down and leads to poor decision-making.
Once you equip yourself with a better understanding of your own fears, you can embrace them and use their motivating power to move forward.