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You may have read in the news lately about a prevailing culture at streaming video giant Netflix that values fear as a motivator in the workforce.

When fear is the primary motivator in business, something is probably amiss.

According to various news articles, employees at Netflix earn high salaries but must operate at peak performance at all times to remain employed there. Critical public feedback and even public firings happen if the news articles are to be believed.

On the one hand, there’s no denying how successful Netflix has been, how it has disrupted the entire entertainment industry, and how it has changed people’s viewing habits and expectations for video entertainment.

But can a cutthroat approach to corporate culture work over the long term? How can such a culture expect to attract the best job candidates when they can work at other high-compensation companies without worrying about being fired in front of everyone?

Fear as a Performance Motivator?

There is no question that fear can be an outstanding motivator. Most of us have, if nothing else, experienced the fear of failing a test, or of letting our team down, and have risen to the occasion. It’s probably good for us to know we can have our eyes opened to problems that must be solved quickly, and then actually solve them.

For some people, for whom failure threatens their entire sense of self, fear can work as a motivator for a long time. But not everyone is like that. People with a secure self-concept, who are passionate about their work, may not regularly consider “avoiding failure” as part of what motivates them. Do these people have a place in organizations with fear-based corporate culture? Maybe for the short term, but they’re not likely to stick around for long in an “all-sticks-no-carrots” environment.

Different Things Drive Short-Term and Long-Term Success

We have all felt the crunch at work, when an important deadline looms, or when a presentation must go off perfectly to land a great client. Gearing up for these periods of intense focus and hard work may involve plenty of other motivators besides the possibility of accomplishing something great. Maybe the boss brings in a catered dinner for team members having to work long hours in preparation, for example.

Sometimes a little TLC during “crunch time” at work can keep the team going strong.

When it comes to long-term success, however, many of us envision our future selves and the future in which those selves live. And often we think of work we’re passionate about. Think of the astrophysicist spending an entire career looking for signals way out in the universe that may or may not appear. It’s not always the clearly-defined accomplishment (landing this account, or adding that many site subscribers) that keeps us going over the long haul, but passion combined with an envisioned future.

Feeling Valued, Not Fearful, Is Better for Long-Term Success

Nobody is saying that businesses must coddle underperformers or avoid hurting employee feelings at all costs. It is business, after all. But working in an environment that takes employees in, chews them up and spits them out is only going to work long-term for a small subset of professionals.

Success at all costs may work in a gritty 80s and 90s movies like Wall Street or Glengarry Glen Ross, but actual life is more than what happens on a big screen for a couple of hours. Healthy corporate cultures value corporate success, naturally, but they also value the people who make that success happen.

Sometimes executive coaching clients must come to grips with their own “success at all costs” mindset because when success happens due to cutting corners, or at the expense of long-term sustainability, it will eventually come crashing down. Ultimately, every executive, and every employee for that matter asks, “Why am I doing this?” If the answer is, “I just don’t know anymore,” then nobody wins.

Corporate culture is more than a slogan or a mission statement. It’s something that must be practiced until it is second nature. If you’re interested in learning more about corporate culture and cultural transformation, contact me or check out my books, which go into greater detail on these essential business topics.

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