FOMO, or the fear of missing out, is a powerful thing. It’s so powerful, in fact, that learning to utilize it is the cornerstone of every Sales 101 course. And it works for one very simple reason—fear is an extremely potent motivator.
As human beings, fear is a fact of existence and has been since before our ancestors were even walking upright. In a more primitive setting, fear of the saber-toothed tiger can keep you from being eaten and fear of poison keeps you from eating something you shouldn’t. In other words, being afraid keeps you safe and protected.
But fear is an inherently defensive feeling. It can get you to a place to hunker down and weather the storm, but staying safe and growing are two very different things. And in business, these two actions may even be mutually exclusive at times.
Fear may have worked as a motivator to keep our ancestors out of the jaws of predators, but it’s not half as effective in the workplace. And strong fears at work come in many forms, whether that’s fear of the boss, fear of doing the wrong thing, fear of taking a risk, etc.
This doesn’t just apply to people at the bottom rung of the organizational ladder, either. Whether you’re in middle management, the CEO, or a solopreneur, fear can limit your options and send you down specific, unpleasant paths.
I know because I’ve seen it.
Early in my career, I ended up in a culture that was dominated by the presence of someone dead-set on instilling fear. When someone stepped even a toe out of line, the response was always that person’s yelling, their censure, and an overall slew of unpleasantness.
And for a while, I was able to hunker down and handle it. My work got done, and I got through the day by mentally calculating how to follow the rulebook and avoid bringing any penalties on myself by doing something new.
My motivations were entirely rooted in fear, which precluded me from trying to find new ways to grow my role or help the company. And if that sounds both unhealthy and unproductive, that’s only because it was extremely unhealthy and unproductive.
I was able to handle the situation all right—after all, getting through the day isn’t hard when you know what buttons not to press. But I didn’t like coming to work, and I, like a lot of my talented coworkers, quickly found a way to leave on my own terms. For the rest of the staff, they decided to hunker down.
That organization collapsed not long after a lot of us left, and I firmly believe that the leadership’s culture of fear had everything to do with that. The leader that everyone feared was himself so afraid of mistakes that he made it impossible for any growth to happen within the organization. And this led to its inevitable end—a stagnate, failing business.
As you look at your motivators, ask yourself this question: Am I playing to win, or am I playing not to lose? My fear-driven boss was playing not to lose, so the business never had any wins to keep it going.
As you’re examining your motivators, try to identify sources of fear. Maybe that’s fear of conflict at work, fear of being fired, or even fear that your spouse isn’t happy with your hours or how much money you’re bringing home.
Don’t just stop at your own motivation, though. What about your company as a whole? Does the sales team fear getting yelled at? Or do they feel supported to try new things and stretch their talents to get the best results?
What about your directors? Are they motivated to color in the lines so they don’t get in trouble with the board, or are they empowered to take risks and try to create new growth for the organization?
After I left that culture of fear, I found a new culture of empowerment. And eventually I learned that making a mistake didn’t have to be like stepping on a landmine, that instead of resulting in carnage, mistakes could be resolved with honest discussions about how to make better decisions in the future.
I started to flourish in that role, I was happy to be in the organization, and I brought in better results because I wasn’t trying to keep my head down and avoid the sabertooth. And in my career today, I work hard to enable others to take those same risks in their work.
If you’re seeing a lot of fear in your workplace, then it may be time to make some large changes. Like I said, fear is always going to be a part of being human. But it shouldn’t be the primary motivator for yourself or your organization. Because if those are the only management tools being used, then the only possible outcome is collapse.