Lesson Learned: Don’t be tempted by the Dark Side of motivation — fear and blame-avoidance.

Alan Gilbert
2 min readMar 14, 2023

This blog post is part of a series of leadership lessons that I have learned from 40 years in tech

Many successful companies are built upon a culture of fear and blame. I worked at one for many years. You can get pretty good results with negative energy. People don’t like to be criticized. And the fact is, many are motivated by avoidance of negative consequences. It is human nature to feel relief when another person or team is blamed for something bad, sparing you or your “tribe” the fallout. No one wants to be admonished for missing a deadline, cutting an important feature, or losing a potential customer or large order. Especially when hindsight might show that more raw effort could have saved the day. People will go to great lengths to avoid getting ostracized by a capricious boss, while desperately seeking a shred of their elusive praise. I know. I have been there. My teams have been there. And it kind of works. I have seen near-miracles occur under such conditions.

But… you can’t get truly great results that way. And you can’t build a world-class company. And it’s definitely not as fun. In fact, it’s miserable. It wears people out and it’s not sustainable. Don’t underestimate the benefits of simply having fun in doing your job and the lift and engagement that it provides. If you haven’t read Drive, by Daniel Pink, and you lead people, move it immediately to the top of your reading list. In short, it posits that creative people (and all product people are creative people) are best motivated by these three factors:

  • Autonomy (ability to direct our own lives)
  • Mastery (ability to learn and create new things)
  • Purpose (ability to do better by ourselves and our world)

These are certainly all positive motivators and I would argue that fun is a byproduct of these factors. The best, most successful companies I have been part of had much more of these factors and much less of the negative ones above.

Motivation is like The Force. The Dark Side is tempting because it is effective and powerful. And it is easier to master. But the Light Side is more sustainable and always wins in the end. Well, at least until a tried and true villain is needed for the next franchise reboot.