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When is FEAR Motivation useful?


In a keynote talk by the author and speaker Daniel Pink he shared a number of fascinating observations which I thought would be of value to you.

How do you get people to listen to Airline safety announcements?

At the JetBlue University where flight attendants are trained in a $90m simulator, they carried out an experiment to explore how people react to safety announcements on a plane.

A lot of people ignore the safety briefings and this can create major problems in the unlikely event of there being an emergency. So they tried three different experiments to see how people reacted.

They invited people to attend who believed they were attending standard flight attendant training.

They wanted to answer the question “What type of flight attendant instructions will not only get people to pay attention, but also take action appropriately in an emergency

In each case the flight attendants gave the instructions, the plane “took off” and then during the flight an emergency occurred and smoke poured into the cabin and people had to get out.

Experiment 1:

Typical instructions that you get on most airlines during the briefing were used.

When the simulated emergency occurred, people didn’t particularly behave that well and it was observed that some would have probably died because they did not take the appropriate action.

So how do you motivate people to take the appropriate action?

Experiment 2

People on the plane were incentivised to pay attention. They were told that there would be a quiz after the briefing and the possibility of being eligible for a $250 cash prize.

This time people paid attention and many correctly answered the questions.

However when it came to the actual “emergency” and smoke pouring into the cabin, they were only very slightly better than the first experiment at getting safely out.

They believed this was because people were paying more attention on remembering the right answer than working out what actions they would need to take in an emergency.

So as you probably know from either attending my skills sessions or studying elsewhere, that despite most organisations using “incentive motivation”, it is very limited in its effectiveness.

Experiment 3:

They changed this briefing to focus more on fear and included statistics, such as saying that people that don’t pay attention to the safety briefing are 40% more likely to not get safely out etc. They also changed the briefing brochure to have more shock visuals and tactics.

When it came to the actual emergency evacuation that group of people got out quicker than any other trial they had run in the simulator.

So how does that help us in our organisations?

Daniel and the research he explored suggests using FEAR the right way. This is an interesting viewpoint and as always it is up to you how you want to act on the information I share with you.

There are usually two extremes of thought when it comes to using “Fear Motivation”.

Some managers use it as the only way of getting people to do things. This is normally seen as bullying by many.

At the other end of the scale are those that want to be more “enlightened” and are completely against using any type of fear.

Problem is neither of those are that effective when trying to change people’s behaviour.

Fear can be useful in the right context, so we just need to be aware when it is more appropriate.

Fear emotions narrow our scope.

This is simply the way our brains have been hard wired over thousands of years of evolution to keep us alive.

In emergency situations fear works really well. For example, if we are trying to get out of a burning plane we don’t need a number of options popping into our heads. We need to narrow our focus, quickly know what to do and take action.

When we require a wide focus then always avoid fear as a motivator i.e. situations where we need creativity or conceptual work. You can’t scare a person into something that requires an expansive view.

Here are two rudimentary examples of using Fear Motivation:

Example one

“We have made three sales this month and if we don’t make another three by the end of the month we are going out of business.”

Fear Motivation may create more behavioural change if the tasks are straight forward to execute.

Example Two

“If we don’t come up with a new product idea we are going out of business.”

Using Fear motivation is unlikely to help in coming up with new ideas as it narrows the focus. Whereas you need as wide a perspective as possible to create new thinking.


I found it a thought provoking idea and thereforeĀ I wanted to share this with you to encourage more consideration and sophistication when using Fear Motivation in the future with both your teams and your own self talk.

One final thought though is that our job roles are becoming more complex and less narrow in execution and require more wider perspectives, so less likely to require Fear Motivation to initiate change..

Matthew Broomhead
“Raising the level of Business Skills in Britain”
Creator of Broomhead Business Channel

Permanent link to this article: http://www.matthewbroomhead.co.uk/when-is-fear-motivation-useful/