Speak Eagle

Who’s Afraid of the Big, Bad, Boss? 4 Ways to Avoid Using Fear to Persuade

Last week, I wrote a message to the students I teach in my undergraduate public speaking class: “If your grade is on the edge and you do not turn in a final paper, you may fail this class.”

Fear is a powerful motivator, and I know it. Chances are, you know it, too. Whether with our employees, our students, our children or spouses, we know it works. So, we often use it. But when does using fear to persuade those around us negatively affect our relationship with them?

fear photo
Photo Credit: Ingrid Richter www.ingridrichter.org/cheese/fear.html

In a synthesis of past research on fear as a persuasion strategy, Michigan State University scholars, Kim Witte and Mike Allen, concluded that fear appeals “may backfire if target audiences do not believe they are able to effectively avert a threat” (606). (Click here to read article)  In other words, if people feel like they are powerless to accomplish what we are asking, they can become so afraid and anxious that they are unable to succeed.

But more than that, as the threat weighs heavy, they may begin to see us as the enemy of their success. And that’s the last thing we want. Those who see us as their enemy will begin to have internal conversations, like, “I hate her. She’s the meanest teacher/boss/mom ever.” And when those internal conversations become interpersonal conversations between those under us in a school, an organization or a home, the result can be gossip, loss of morale, and even mutiny.

Photo Credit: Gokhan Yildiz https://www.flickr.com/photos/127066648@N08/


As leaders, we want others to feel that we are on their team, encouraging, cheering them on to growth and health. When we use fear consistently as a motivator over time, we can undermine the trust the other people have placed in us to have their best interest at heart.

So how can we protect those pivotal internal and external conversations and avoid using fear as an unhealthy motivator? I suggest four ways.

  1. Keep it Positive. Like Newton’s Third Law of physics states, for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Similarly, for every fear appeal there is an equal and opposite positive appeal. This means that instead of telling my students they will fail the class if they don’t turn in their final papers on time, I could have said, “If you turn in your final paper on time, you have an excellent chance of passing this class.” If you are a boss, instead of threatening a demotion, try encouraging your employee to succeed because of the positive benefits that will result. If you are a parent, instead of threatening grounding for a week, try persuading with positive reinforcement- such as offering inviting a friend over for a sleepover if your child succeeds in accomplishing a task.
  1. Emphasize natural consequences. If you need to mention a negative consequence, consider what follows naturally from the undesired behavior or attitude. Natural consequences are those like my message to my students, such as a student failing a class for not turning in a final paper, or an employee not getting commissions on failed sales attempts, or a child not being allowed to eat a sugary treat when hyper behavior is present. Sometimes we can be tempted to create unnatural consequences for those in our care, perhaps because they make us feel more powerful. Yet, as Foster Cline and Jim Fay teach in Parenting with Love and Logic (Click here to see it), unnatural consequences turn the anger of children onto the person delivering the punishment, instead of onto their own behavior. The same result can occur in employer-employee relationships, as well as teacher-student relationships.
  1. Express Empathy. Whether communicating positive or negative potential results, let the other person know you feel his or her fear or pain. Genuine empathy goes a long way in helping to establish trust in relationships because it communicates to others that they are not alone. Ask questions that allow others to express their specific fears, and listen to understand. Express how you might feel similar if you were in their shoes.
  1. Empower. If researchers such as Witte and Allen conclude that the most dangerous fear appeal is that which leaves others feeling helpless to avert your threat, empower them by offering help and solutions to accomplish what you are requesting. This will communicate to others that you believe in their ability to succeed, that you are on their team, and, like empathy, that they are not alone.

So there you have it- four suggestions to help you avoid using fear as an unhealthy way to persuade others: Keep it Positive, Emphasize Natural Consequences, Express Empathy, and Empower. And if you don’t follow these four suggestions, you will be required to take my public speaking class.

Be afraid. Be very afraid.

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