Fear isn't a motivator for creative staff

They have enough worries already, says Paul Glen

With the job market tanking, vendors laying off staff, and IT departments cutting contractors, employees and projects, IT managers, at best, are going to be under a lot of pressure to improve productivity.

In less functional corporate cultures, managers will be under pressure to do something less positive than improve productivity. They'll simply be told to cut costs, regardless of the effects on the organisation. So when you, as a manager, get the productivity speech or when you, as an IT professional, hear your manager talk about productivity, be happy, not upset. It could be worse. You could be hearing panicked conversations about throwing people and projects overboard.

But it's not always obvious that a given conversation is about productivity. You'll hear productivity improvement discussed in a number of different ways:

-- "We want to do more with less."

-- "We need to demonstrate a better return on investment."

-- "We need to demonstrate our value to avoid further budget cuts."

Combine this pressure to improve productivity with the deteriorating job market, and managers may be tempted to try to use threats of layoffs and firings to frighten their staffs into doing better. They might not come right out and say it, but they will be tempted to allow rumors to run wild, unchecked by reassurances. They may feel that a bit of fear and anxiety brought on by concerns about career and financial security is just what the efficiency expert would order to improve productivity.

But I don't think it works that way. Ethical questions aside, fear is just not an effective strategy when it comes to motivating creative knowledge workers.

If you are the overseer on a road-building project and you want people to dig faster, carry more rocks or smooth cement faster, fear may be a decent motivator in the short term, as it was for the supervisors of chain gangs. As long as you can instill fear in the hearts of the workers without instigating a rebellion, you may well get higher productivity than you would by more humane means.

But just because fear may be effective when demanding higher productivity from people doing physical labour, that doesn't mean it works on people doing intellectual work, especially those doing creative intellectual work.

Think about it. Creative work requires mental and emotional engagement. To do it well, people need to focus their minds on their work. Specifically, creative technical professionals need to do two things really well.

First, they need to formulate questions. They need to use their observational powers, their business relationships, their understanding of the business and their analytical skills to figure out which problems or opportunities should be addressed with technology.

Then they need to create solutions to the problems that they have found.

This is no small task. Do not underestimate the difficulty of perceiving reality and imagining ways to change it for the better.

People who are busy worrying about whether they are going to be able to pay next month's mortgage are not going to be completely and unreservedly engaged in business problems. Personal survival takes precedence. If I'm worrying about whether my family will have health insurance next month, I'm not going to be able to shut out that question. I'm going to be focusing on that problem rather than the one you're paying me to work on.

So skip fear as a motivator. Unless your IT group is engaged solely in lugging PCs around the office, fear is only going to decrease productivity. As much as possible, give people a sense of security so that they can focus on their work. That's what really improves productivity.

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