Why threats don’t work

Direct threats can make your blood run cold, or at least make you extremely uneasy:

Angry grizzly bears are going to look tame next to what is waiting for you at home.

Veiled threats can be scary:

My patience isn’t limitless … unlike my authority.

Psychopathic threat can be creepy:

Keep your eyes open, Fireheart. Keep your ears pricked. Keep looking behind you. Because one day I’ll find you, and then you’ll be crowfood.

But these are fiction. In real life, threats like these might at best be laughable. And if you threaten someone at work, you will almost certainly find yourself in deep trouble and not laughing. And that’s a fact, not a threat.

Here are some real-life threats:

‘I’ll fire you if you don’t tidy up that desk!’

The manager of a friend’s young-ish son is continually threatening to fire him if he doesn’t keep his desk tidier. The problem is, this young man doesn’t mind working in what his super-tidy boss considers to be ‘chaos’. For months, the boss has barked out the same old threat:  Maybe he will fire him; maybe he won’t. My money is on that he won’t.

Here’s another real-life threat:

I’ll cut off your pocket money!!!!

One of my friends is continually threatening to cut off her kid’s pocket money if she doesn’t do this or doesn’t stop doing that. But she never does. Actually, she did once, but Dad handed out the money anyway!

Why don’t threats work? The big reason is that the more we hear them, the less effect they have. My friend’s son has heard the threat that he’ll be fired for so long now that he’s learned to live with it. The initial pangs of anxiety, which led to half-hearted attempts to clear is desk, have given way to inward sighs whenever his boss bellows at him to tidy up. The other kid knows that Mum’s threats are hollow.

And that’s the lesson – don’t make threats that you can’t, or won’t, keep. Instead, offer carrots or make promises that you can, and will, keep if you must.

  • If you keep that desk tidy for a fortnight, I’ll let you work on that project you’re really interested in. (That’s a carrot.)
  • If you don’t do this , I’ll let you have an extra 15 minutes on the computer for a week. (That’s a carrot.)
  • If you do that, I’ll dock you 15 minutes computer time each time. (That’s a promise, not a threat.)

And make good on those promises.

Discussion questions

Have you ever been motivated by a threat? Did that motivation last long? Do you ever make empty threats or are you more likely to offer carrots and promises?

This blog is a modified version of the thesis-antithesis-synthesis format I wrote about in my blog How to get  top marks on your essays. I followed that format in the two subsequent blogs (Setbacks as opportunities and Management’s use-by date is nigh.) I like the format—what about you? Do you think it would make you a better essay writer and help you learn more deeply?