Fear can be a motivator, but it is NOT a teacher

“You have to fail in order to learn”. FALSE. This is a myth.

It is true that fear focuses our attention – quite acutely and it can even motivate people to pay attention and learn.

We can also learn a lot when we fail – but not necessarily from the failure itself. When you touched a hot stove when you were young and it burned your hand, it left a very strong fear-based imprint of “don’t touch a hot stove!”  Of course. And there, you learned what not to do. But did you learn what else that you should do if you want to cook some food? No. Some people will burn themselves on a hot stove and conclude that they should never go near a stove again (so much for a healthy eating regimen in the future!). Others might figure out or be taught that they should wear oven mitts or that they should only touch the long cool handles of a pot or skillet: they have learned how to deal with a hot stove, rather than to just avoid a hot stove. But should you use fear as a motivator in the workplace?

Somehow, many leaders, trainers and designers of learning programmes have decided as a rule to use failure and fear as a teaching approach – to always create learning through failure. This is just not a healthy practice because when we are afraid, our bodies flood with adrenaline and cortisol and our brains close down and that prohibits learning.

Associations with fear will stop future applications

It may appear to be a helpful learning approach, because fear is excellent at focusing our attention. But it also associates failure and fear along with whatever new skill we’re learning in our long-term memory. As an example: if you set people up to fail when they are learning how to give feedback, failure will be strongly associated with feedback far into the future. That association is likely to stop them when it’s time to provide feedback to others – of course they don’t want to give feedback, it’s practically synonymous with failing!

Don’t confuse fear as a motivator with fear as a teacher

If you do go down the road of setting people up to fail, or if your learners fail along the way, please know that the failure itself does not teach them what they should do. It only teaches them what they shouldn’t do. So, let them fail at something and now that you have their attention be sure to also teach them the right way. Show them that the failure is not the desired outcome but perhaps the stepping stone to success.

Give people permission to fail

Permission to fail is very different than setting people up to fail. We will fail all on our own when we try something new, because rarely is a person perfect on the first attempt at a new skill. So in a healthy learning environment, there will be permission to fail: ensure there’s no criticism or shame in failing and that people can learn from their mistakes – of what not to do, as well as learn what they should be doing. This often separates failing from fear and still allows you to challenge people to try something new and learn from whatever happens.

Motivate with inspiration rather than fear

Instead of motivating with fear, inspire learners. Inspiration and desire help the brain be open to learning.

Invite learners to see how the concepts you are teaching them will enhance their capabilities. E.g., Help them see how others will appreciate them for the feedback they give and will listen to them rather than run from them, how they can inspire others to embrace the opportunity for growth and development.

Set learners up for success

Give people tools to be successful. Give them an inspiring example – demonstrate a great example of what ‘good’ looks like. Then give them the tools (a model), skills (best practices for using that model) and a chance to practice (using real or realistic situations) so they can have a successful experience and begin to build neural pathways that they can rely on and strengthen later.

If you train others in giving feedback, for example, teach them to manage their emotions, to have a growth mindset, to “feed forward” and to inspire the feedback recipient with possibilities for their development. Set up a simple situation and let them practice doing it well – so they can feel successful, begin to build the right neural pathways and in turn they will be willing to try it in the real world.

When fear is necessary in the learning process

Now, it probably needs to be said that there is a big exception to our stance about fear and learning. Fear is very effective for long-term learning for people such as emergency workers or military specialists who need to deal with fear in their jobs and they still need to perform while fear is present. Then fear as a motivator in the workplace is an absolute necessity as part of a learning process.

But this isn’t the standard learning environment.

In summary:

We believe this approach applies to learning for all kinds of soft skills, leadership skills, interpersonal skills and probably any kind of skills.  Here’s a brief summary of the points above:

  • Setup a learning environment where it’s OK to try and fail
  • Remove the fear of failing by encouraging trials and remove shame about not being perfect
  • Focus your attention on setting people up for success – give them the skills they need to succeed and motivate them through what will be possible for them
  • Provide opportunities where they can learn your skills through successful implementation.

Please contact us to learn more.

Leadership Development