Does Fear Motivate Employees?

Last Updated Jan 17, 2008 6:00 PM EST

Does Fear Work to Motivate Employees?Some bosses lead through empowerment, others through intimidation. When I think of an empowering boss, I think of exemplars such as Hewlett-Packard co-founder David Packard and "The H-P Way." On the intimidation side, well, let's just say Al Dunlap earned his nickname "Chainsaw".

So which works best at motivating employees, fear or empowerment?

According to Harvard Business School professor Scott A. Snook in a new post Love and Fear and the Modern Boss, there is no clear cut answer.

Sometimes, a fiery leader like college basketball coach Bobby Knight is the right person for the job, depending on the needs and culture of the organization. In another environment, the more supportive approach adopted by Knight's rival coach Mike Krzyzewski is the best solution. Says Snook:

Indeed, if a leader is stern and autocratic -- even rude and insulting -- he can inspire great respect if he is also authentic, and if he genuinely cares about the people working for him.
Has a "my way or the highway" boss motivated you to do better work -- or just find a new job? How do you lead?

For additional reading:

On Managing with Bobby Knight and 'Coach K'
The Paradox of Empowerment
(Intimidation image by JoF, CC 2.0)

  • Sean Silverthorne

    Sean Silverthorne is the editor of HBS Working Knowledge, which provides a first look at the research and ideas of Harvard Business School faculty. Working Knowledge, which won a Webby award in 2007, currently records 4 million unique visitors a year. He has been with HBS since 2001.

    Silverthorne has 28 years experience in print and online journalism. Before arriving at HBS, he was a senior editor at CNET and executive editor of ZDNET News. While at At Ziff-Davis, Silverthorne also worked on the daily technology TV show The Site, and was a senior editor at PC Week Inside, which chronicled the business of the technology industry. He has held several reporting and editing roles on a variety of newspapers, and was Investor Business Daily's first journalist based in Silicon Valley.