The High Price of Negative Motivation

I was standing to the left of the stage in a very large ballroom preparing to speak to a group of 300 construction supervisors. I was delivering a speech entitled, Motivational Leadership: The Inspirational Side of Engaged Leadership. The CEO of the company walked on stage to give the introduction.

“Alright, alright. Sit down, shut up, and listen,” he started. “I have two things to say. One, I better not see anyone fall asleep in my meeting. Between the hotel charges, the food bill, and all the travel expenses, I paid a bunch of money for you all to be here. If I catch one of you sleeping in my meeting, you’re fired. Second, you need to pay attention because we’ve paid this guy to come in here and help us motivate the troops.” He then turned to me and said, “And you better do a good job.” He turned back to the audience and said, “Please help me welcome Cliff Swindell.

I have had the pleasure of speaking to several hundred audiences and enjoyed many different introductions. Never in my life have I experienced an introduction quite like that one. It was awful on so many levels, the least of which was that he ­couldn’t even get my name right.

The evening before the speech I had the opportunity to spend some time with this CEO and some of his leadership team. It was apparent to me from the beginning of the evening that he was feared by his leadership team. He had a very strong personality, to which I am certain he attributes his success as a leader.

As a student of human behavior and leadership in particular, I was analyzing his leadership style throughout dinner. Based on our conversation, it was clear that he saw himself as a visionary leader. In a very common approach to leadership, he had the vision, communicated it to his team, and directed them to pursue it.

At no point did I ever get the impression he believed he needed to inspire anyone to pursue the vision. His method of motivation was intimidation, and he expected everyone to perform or they could find their way to the door. What an exciting place to work!

I’m not denying the considerable power in negative motivation and management by intimidation. In fact, there’s no need to look very far to see organizations built on foundations of negative motivation. Fear is a strong motivating factor. I simply believe that negative motivation and management by intimidation will get people to do things for the wrong reason. Although it will help realize short-term results, it will do nothing to create engaged employees. In fact, it will do just the opposite.

Some people enjoy focusing on negative motivation. In fact, we’ve probably all worked for someone who thrived on it. But overall, I don’t think most people want to focus on negative motivation. In fact, I believe there are only two reasons someone would focus on it. One, they were led by fear, and they’ve continued the bad habits of the bad managers they grew up with. And two, it’s the easy way out. Finding what will inspire someone is hard. Threatening their employment is easy. Neither of these reasons is acceptable when trying to build a culture to overcome employee disengagement.

My experience has shown me that negative motivation leads to short term gains, while positive motivation leads to long term engagement. There are many ways to lead with positive motivation, including:

Give employees something to run toward, not from

In my book Engaged Leadership: Building a Culture to Overcome Employee Disengagement, I address the need to set expectations and consequences. The importance of positive consequences was shared, and should be addressed here as well. Negative motivation gives employees something to run from. For example, if you tell an employee that the next time you catch him making a personal telephone call you will “write him up,” then he very well may stop making personal telephone calls because he’s afraid of getting written up. He is running from the negative consequence. (Actually, more than likely he’ll continue to make personal telephone calls if he works in a culture like that. He’ll just make sure he ­doesn’t do it when you’re around.) On the other hand, positive motivation gives him something to run toward. Tell him what positive thing will happen if he goes the next three months and you ­haven’t had to talk to him about making personal telephone calls.

Ask employees what will inspire them

One of the most common questions I receive is related to ways to motivate employees. Managers will tell me they’ve done everything they know to do, and they can’t figure out how to inspire their team members. My advice to them is always the same. Stop trying to figure out what will motivate them and ask. Once you know specifically what inspires them, your efforts at motivation will work every time.

Focus on what they’re doing well

The traditional performance review includes a laundry list of things needing improvement. There’s nothing wrong with informing employees of areas of improvement, but start by telling them what they’re doing well. Remember, tell them what they are doing right, then tell them how they can improve.

Focus on the best

All employees are important, and deserve to be led with positive motivation. There is no group more deserving of your attention than percentage at the top of your organization. These are usually the first to leave because they don’t feel recognized. Identify ways to lead with positive motivation, and direct it toward those at the top.

There is a time for negative motivation, but we should start with positive motivation if we want people to do things for the right reason and if we want to build a culture to overcome employee disengagement.

Clint Swindall

© 2016 Clint Swindall — Clint is the president & CEO of Verbalocity, Inc., a personal development company with a focus on leadership enhancement. For information about how he can enhance employee engagement in your organization, please visit, or contact him directly

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