Motivating Employees Without Fear

by Kevin Hale1/13/2016

Dear YC,

We let 2 sales reps go because they weren’t even close to hitting their numbers. Now my employees are literally shaking while conducting their 1 on 1s with me. Many are afraid that they’re going to be next.

Any advice on how to expect results without it being a culture ruled by fear?

–Accidental Tyrant

Dear Accidental Tyrant,

Fear is almost always a dread of the unexpected.

When there is fear amongst your employees, you have to get at the root of why they might think their future is uncertain. If an employee can’t predict their place and direction in the company, they will actually perform worse because they’re preoccupied with solving basic needs like will they have a job over how to best help the company.

That means you should remove all ambiguity about how employment and performance evaluation at your company works. For example a firing should never be a surprise to an employee. If it is, then that’s usually a disconnect of expectations and self-awareness about one’s performance. To prevent fear spreading on a team, it also shouldn’t be a surprise to the rest of the employees as well. Everyone should feel that the company does not make arbitrary decisions.

My recommendeded first step is to make sure they feel like you understand and empathize with what they’re feeling. If they’re afraid of you, then they’ll distance themselves and it’ll be harder for you to get a sense of what’s really going on. So close that distance as soon as possible.

Employees performing well should not be afraid. If they are, you have to figure out why they see your other actions as arbitrary as opposed to justified and in alignment with what was set for the individual / team / company.

Some things that cause people to be unable to predict the future:

  • Not knowing if mistakes are allowed
  • Not knowing how many chances one gets to fix mistakes
  • Not knowing if expectations for numbers are reasonable or not
  • Not knowing why other people were removed
  • Not knowing whether one is doing a good job or not
  • Not knowing how hard it is to hit numbers / targets
  • Not knowing if the company will give the benefit of the doubt to employees
  • Not knowing the criteria for performance
  • Not knowing how management makes decisions
  • Not knowing if one is compared to peers or benchmarks
  • Not knowing if the company cares about me as a person or just my performance
  • Not knowing if one can show vulnerability or not without consequence
  • Not knowing if one can try new things that could potentially fail
  • Not knowing if one can ask for help without being evaluated

    Many of these seem obvious, but you’d probably be surprised if you ask employees directly how they’d answer those questions. If you don’t explicitly declare them over and over, they fill in the blanks themselves and you’ll discover quickly that what runs your culture is not one that you explicitly state but one they hodge podge together trying to navigate unspoken rules and forces.

    —-Kevin Hale

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  • Kevin Hale

    Kevin was a Partner at YC. He was cofounder of Wufoo, which was funded by Y Combinator in 2006 and acquired by SurveyMonkey in 2011.