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Fear is the Key

The first time I heard Gabbar Singh reveal his claim to infamy, I loathed him for it. How can anyone feel happy if their mere sight or name caused fear in another? My sense of goodness revolted at the thought that a baddie was so bad that mothers put their children to sleep invoking his name. This was in circa 1975.

Having watched the movie several times over, I realized two decades hence that invoking fear is much more effective than fear itself. In the  mid-1970s, there were tales from the Chambal ravines of how dacoits kidnapped infants and killed them to intensify the fear factor that will ultimately force the parents to cough up ransoms without question. A friend passed  on an excellent treatise on fear being the key to obedience, where the author Rev. Richard Skaff (a pastor) delves into the reasons of terrorism (Click here to read).

In essence we could say that Fear is indeed the Key and the amount of fear that we can instill should be directly proportional to the result one expects as a consequence. Now consider this scenario… does the above inference hold good for a corporate environment too? Is fear a powerful and possibly the only motivator to good performance, where good is defined as the result that a manager sets for the team in terms of KRAs?

Image courtesy: The Hindu Online via Google Images

My immediate reaction to this is: if my manager keeps threatening me of unpleasant consequences all the time, can I ever achieve the Flow State? I recall an incident from my early career where my boss gave me the confidence of holding fort with the words “Just be yourself. In case anything goes wrong, I will own up the error.” The words boosted my confidence to an extent that I not only scaled myself up in the work ladder, but also took extra care to avoid errors because I couldn’t let my boss’s trust in me dwindle.

There was a fear of consequence, but what kept me going strong was my commitment to the cause, which in this case was the belief I must never let my boss down. And he too benefitted from my untiring efforts! He would go on long breaks, have dozens of cigarettes, an occasional drink and generally loiter around as his levels of trust in me grew steadily. Soon, not even a semblance of supervision was required and he moved up the corporate ladder.

Now, cut to the shop floor of an MNC in Bangalore. My manager waves a sheaf of papers that he claims will assess the team’s performance in terms of deliverables. Nothing wrong with that, as I discussed in an earlier post. System and process are  critical for scaling up by doing the “right” thing again and again. The question is does this apparently “thoughtless” system adversely impact quality of individual thought, given that processes are often akin to tracks laid down for a train?

Managers usually welcome freshers into a team with the words, “Don’t ask too many questions. Just follow the process.” This is fine as long as the manager also describes clearly the output expected from the process itself. Because, if he fails, the new member will (a) start questioning the systems and get irritated or (b) follow it blindly and become a zombie of sorts.

Unfortunately, managers have an inherrent dislike for both sorts. The first one can be described as insubordination while the second becomes a liability as the process would have rendered him mindless – the “garbage in, garbage out” syndrome. And it is ironical that both the results are a result of the manager’s extreme focus on error avoidance. The fear of committing an error overrides everything else.

Does this mean that even performance monitoring is a facade? Most managers stick to the “fully met” criterion that possibly doesn’t take into account the person’s ability to rise about the prevailing system. And since the system is designed to avoid errors, the best performer is usually one who makes the least errors. So, where does that leave the “out-of-the-box thinking”?

Having said so, the onus of an intelligent team doesn’t just rest with the manager. Many managers end up drawing the process for lack of commitment from their teams. I’ve heard managers comment that their teams seldom shape up till they are shown the consequences of their actions. It is once again the fear of consequence that makes them shape up and not their own desire to.

Reminds me of the unruly drivers on our city roads who seldom think “once” before jumping traffic lights. The consequences are obvious to any thinking mind, but to the cavalier souls, a road mishap only happens to “others”. As for the law, they know for sure that a fifty rupee currency note can get them out of any traffic offense!

And those of us who wait their turn patiently at a red light or a queue, it is not just the fear of consequence that keeps us in line, it is a commitment to the cause – be it road discipline or adding value to our work.

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