(Sales & Marketing Management Magazine January 1998)
Only the Scared Survive by Vincent Alonzo
I was six years old. She was somewhere between 65 and dead. She wore a coal black, floor-length dress that had an imposing hoopskirt with pleats that quivered like tentacles when she walked. A black bonnet encased her head, tied severely with a black ribbon under her chin. This was a true Bride of Christ from the old school.
Was she a nun? Or the Angel of Death?
Her name was Sister Merita-Agatha and for 10 months she tortured me and 29 other first graders. I’ll never forget that first day of school. She paced methodically before the class with her hands placed behind her back. “The Board of Education sets the rules for the students in New York City public schools. But you are all in parochial school. That board has no authority here,” she bellowed at us.
She raised her right arm-with paddle in hand-from behind her back and said, “This is the only board you need concern yourselves with.”
And she was true to her word. From September to June that paddle saw action every day. Between the threats and the punishments, she taught us. And it seemed to work. I have a vague recollection of the other nuns being envious of her. While their students struggled with the alphabet, we were writing words. By the time they advanced to words, my classmates and I were composing sentences. The consequences of failure were just too severe.
Which brings me to the topic of today’s sermon: Is fear a good motivator for salespeople?
The lash certainly played a role in teaching me to write. Does cracking the whip motivate people to sell? David Kurlan, vice president of the Objective Management Group Inc. in Southboro, Massachusetts, says yes. “Fear is a great motivator. We grew up holding authority figures in high esteem. There are exceptions, but the bulk of the population is afraid of people with authority,” he says. “Implementing a certain amount of fear within the workplace can be used to a manager’s advantage to increase the bottom line.”
But Kurlan stresses that fear can be a very good motivator only if it is used properly. The key to making fear work is to be realistic with the consequences. Make sure the consequences have meaning and that you follow through with them. First, there must be a clear explanation of what is expected of the salesperson’s performance. Once the expectation is clearly laid out and agreed to, fear need not be implemented unless salespeople do not meet the expectations.
“Offer some consequence if productivity is not increased, such as reducing the base salary or not paying a cellular phone bill-something to get the message across to ensure it won’t happen again.” The second ‘or else’ should be more serious-an employee can lose an account or have a territory cut in half. The third time around say, “do it or you don’t work here anymore.” Salespeople perform because they don’t have the option of not performing.
Blaine Lee, vice president of the Covey Leadership Center in Provo, Utah, disagrees. “Fear is not a good motivator; fear is a predictable motivator that breeds short-term compliance. The people who use fear to motivate mistake compliance for loyalty,” he says. “If an employee has a reason to be afraid, he will immediately comply, but with the slightest opening, he will fight, rebel or run away because it’s not with the spirit of humans to be dictated to. When your primary tool is to elicit fear you’re trying to control, and the subjects will ultimately resist.”
According to Lee, even if fear appears to be working, underlying things are happening that one’s not aware of. If a salesperson is told that numbers drastically need to go up and the two people with the lowest increases will be fired, they’ll move-but they’ll also lie, cheat, steal, fake paperwork, trade paperwork or do other crazy things when put in the ‘survival’ mode. Using fear to motivate is an artificial way to psyche up employees. Instead, critical information should be shared between management and employees, ” he says.
“We must show people how ugly fear is. If you’re willing to listen to your employees, you can live a life of integrity and experience a long-term influence that can last your whole life,” Lee says.
But Kurlan doesn’t buy that. “I recently worked with a sales manager who used a ‘warm fuzzy’ relationship approach to get people to love her. They were happy, but productivity decreased,” he says. “When eliciting fear, morale temporarily goes down, but salespeople soon become more productive and make more money. It’s a long-term motivator.”
There may be something to that. Kurlan says, “If you ask star athletes who their best coaches or managers were, most name the toughest ones. It doesn’t require being nasty or brutal, just being firm. Bill Parcells, coach of the New York Jets football team, is a good example. He is famous for a ruthless management style, yet he has transformed the Giants, Patriots and now the Jets from losers into playoff contenders in one year. And many players on his former team, the New England Patriots, have publicly admitted that team performance has diminished because of Parcell’s absence.”
“The negative consequences of not using fear is worse than using it,” Kurlan says. “I’d rather have an extremely productive sales force that hated me than have an organization of twelve best friends who were always trying to get away with something.”
I’d have to agree. Sister Merita-Agatha has long since passed on. Part of me hopes that she’s cloistered in an extra toasty corner of hell. But another part of me realizes that she continues to play a crucial role in my success. She planted the writing seed in me. As long as I earn my living as a writer I’ll never truly be free of her-and I’ll be in her debt.