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Motivation mayday

By Chris Lodge

Isn’t it time we stopped using fear as a motivation tool? Senior data analyst, Chris Lodge, provides a fascinating insight into a life-changing event in the RAF that now informs his management style.

I've never been a fan of using consequences to motivate staff. Why? Well, something happened to me when I was 22 that changed my outlook on life forever.


Back in the 1980s, I served in the RAF. One of my jobs was Bomb Disposal. One day, I was in a pit destroying a chemical weapon, using a process called a ‘Pandora’s Box’. It consisted of a shaped charge and two coke bottles filled with petrol and wrapped with explosive cortex. The idea was the shaped charge would punch a hole through the weapon and the exploding petrol would ignite the chemical, causing a massive mushroom cloud of flames.


This was my first one, so I was apprehensive. When I struggled to put the detonator into the shaped charge through a plastic lid, I became scared. If I manhandled the detonator too much it could go off, taking my fingers with it, or even killing me if it was only partially in the shaped charge. I thought that I was going to die. This was, I suppose, my near-death experience.


But even though I was terrified, I did manage to disarm the explosive (without losing any fingers). So what motivated me? I didn’t have anyone reminding me of the consequences if I failed. I just did it because it was my job. I was going to finish it, even if it meant losing my life.


Most of the people that I have ever worked with or managed also have this attitude (maybe not the loss of life bit, but who knows). They will go the extra mile, not because they are forced to or threatened with consequences, but because that is simply what the job requires. And if they’re not 100% committed, there’s usually an underlying explanation that no amount of ruling by fear will address.


To put this mentality into practice, managers need to do two things. One, put in the effort to manage people by understanding them. As the anthropologist and activist David Graeber states “The sure-fire way to simplify social arrangements, to ignore the incredibly complex play of perspectives, passions, insights, desires, and mutual understandings that human life is really made of, is to make a rule and threaten to attack anyone who breaks it”. In other words, people are complicated. A restrictive management style will only limit their potential.


Two, trust people to do their job. In my experience, you will be pleasantly surprised far more than disappointed. After all, if you can be trusted to safely disarm a bomb, surely you can be trusted to safely create ads?