Life Between the Carrot & Stick and Our Need for Belonging

Uh? Nope! Not moving any farther… Ever walk up to a cliff? Stop at the edge? 10 feet before? Or, do you hang your legs over the edge with I’m alive exhilaration? Unless you’re an experienced free climber, or a trained base jumper with a parachute, you stop. We like being grounded.

Any of that sound like you at work? You know what you could do, but you don’t. You’ve played it over and over in your head. And nope! You still don’t. You’ve taken on that critical task and it sits primarily upon your shoulders. Maybe you get into looping delays before you actually do it, but at what cost?

You’ve probably experienced your high and personally meaningful aspirations being at risk, you know, the stuff that really mattered to you. You faced increased states of fear and impending threats as the stakes became a cliff. Some of your fear was internally driven by your own not wanting to fail, and some of it was external, people were waiting to pounce on you for a mistake. Sadly, you probably didn’t have enough belonging, which is your tribal safety rope or parachute, to get you unstuck.

If someone held your rope, or worked with you extensively so you’re really comfortable with a base jump chute, would you go forth?

We spend most of our days at work, 8-10 hours’ worth. The lack of employee engagement and satisfaction in the workplace studies suggest that the command-and-control (do-this-or-else) practices that use lots of carrots and sticks aren’t changing anything. A Gallup study reveals 51% are actively looking to change jobs. Various studies show 70% of employees leave their companies because of their managers. And, 64% say they trust AI over their managers. Employee engagement hasn’t changed in 15 years. We’re still missing something.

The majority of our work world relies on influencing just two of our base hardwired emotional states: aspiration and fear. We’ve built our work world around these two emotions, and, forgot about belonging. “Come work for us and do these great things,” the carrot (aspiration), and, the stick (fear), “if you don’t do it right, you’ll get banished.” In response, we tend to get stuck in the scary spaces, where we do uncool things out of fear.

Well, we have another base emotion to work with, the so often neglected, belonging. It’s always happening in us too. And without it, the fear we experience is larger and more intense, and aspiration in anything bigger than our individual selves, ultimately turns into fear. When we bring belonging back into play with fear and aspiration, we start coming together and figure out ways to be on top again.

Would you like 50% less turnover in your company? And a 56% increase in employee performance? When we use these three essential emotional states together, fear, belonging, and aspiration, we drive forward and do some pretty amazing things.

Good gardeners know, if the flower’s not blooming, it’s probably the environment. For the human flower to bloom, the soil needs some fear, a regular dose of belonging and some shining aspiration.

Our well-used Fear & Aspiration Emotions
Our Carrot & Stick

Without these two emotions we’d probably die physically and rather quickly, and or, go nowhere, slowly fading away into a slow emotional death.

The Stick (FEAR)
We need it. Without it we’d fall off a cliff. It’s a good thing! I know that’s not what’s popular to say right now, but I’m gonna side with Leonard Kim on this one. Let your fears guide you (A great TEDx). Here’s a test for you. Just walk towards a cliff. You’ll stop, that is, if you let fear guide you. If you don’t, we’re going to talk about you as a Darwin Award. We’re wired to live, not die from the threats in the outside world, and especially in ambiguous situations. If it’s unclear, we will fear. And it’s this same wiring that filters all our human interactions. Yep, every encounter with each other is first checked for friend or foe. The first thing we look at is their hands. You might be thinking, no, it’s the eyes, smile or whatever. Check out Vanessa Van Edward’s TED Talk, You Are Contagious. If the hands pose no threat, then we’re looking at or searching someone’s face for the affirming and welcoming expression. The simple lack of feeling affirmed in presence equals unsafe in our wiring. You might be thinking this concept makes really good sense when we’re talking about meeting strangers. But guess what, it happens all the time, even when we’re in the familiar spaces with familiar faces, like work.

Take, for example, two people who work for the same company, call them Morty and Mattie. They have different roles in their company and share the same strategic end goal. They’re part of the same corporate tribe. They have a good history of solving problems together. This sound familiar to you? I know I’ve been here myself.

One day, walking past each other, Mattie gives Morty a disinterested stare. Morty’s split-second response in the unclear, something’s wrong. Wait? Is Mattie friend or foe? As subtle as it is, it’s a fear response. And Morty’s recorded it. This is Brain Rule 2: Survival, from John Medina, in action. Later that day in another meeting together, Mattie doesn’t acknowledge the importance of Morty’s efforts to make the project succeed. Uh-oh! Again, friend or foe? One + one equals way more than 2 when in fear. “Way more than” = any number of possible reasons that Morty can consider. And in those considerations, whether Mattie is intentional and or of malice, or just distracted away from also considering his feelings and well-being, Morty’s not safe.

Morty’s fear that guides could be this: I’m not feeling safe. My teammate doesn’t have my back. “I need to reach out to fix our relationship.” His parachute here, is acting in vulnerability by reaching out to what was historically for him a good safe place. His cliff is to continue going forward without acting on that fear. In this Morty’s “Choose Your Own Adventure Book”, Morty reached out in curiosity with an FBI approach, Feelings-Behavior-Impact. Mattie, responds with her incredible emotional intelligence. She listened and then apologized for overlooking him, and tells him that she’ll do better next time because she appreciates their having each other’s back. Morty let his fear guide him to a better outcome, instead of ignoring it and going off a cliff. Small corporate Darwin Award averted.

How often do we hear things like this: Fight fear. Overcome fear. Don’t let fear take control… …?

I’ll say it again, fear is good. Here are a few more good things about fear. It keeps you from walking into the room and being an a$$-hat. Well, most of the time it does. The fact is, fear saves your life every single day. When was the last time you stepped out in front of an oncoming car (when you weren’t staring at your phone walking down the sidewalk)? Fear keeps us alive, physically, emotionally, and aspirationally.What makes things so hard is that fear’s primal wiring hasn’t caught up to the world’s changes.

Our brains evolved to:
(Brain Rule 2 – John Medina)

  1. Solve problems

  2. Survive the sabertooth tiger and other scary things

  3. Be in an unstable outdoor and physically threatening environment,

  4. Be in nearly constant motion.

So, let’s compare that to our work environment of today. This is where it gets a little tricky, we’re in a different environment with the same neuro-circuitry.

  1. Solve problems- yep that’s the same

  2. Surviving/fighting an economic sabertooth tiger- different type of survival, that’s much harder to recognize

  3. In an indoor, static and protected environment- an environment that is safe by comparison to a physical sabertooth tiger, but you might have an emotional one crouching in the cubical next to you

  4. Sitting still at our desks- in isolated responsibility with no place to go (oh s#!t, we can’t escape… and we’re alone!)

We’re cornered and alone in our cubicles, heightening our fear response. The teeth and claws of clear threat now show up, cloaked in words, and smiles.

Our brains are still designed to solve problems of clear and present danger, out in the open, while always moving for the tactical advantage. But we now end up with, we’re not out in the open where our brains like to be. We’re cornered and alone in our cubicles, heightening our fear response. The teeth and claws of clear threat now show up, cloaked in words, and smiles. We feel the danger and try to talk ourselves out of it, which heightens our fear response all the more. We fear gossip about us and participate in it in hopes of safety. Oh, that gossip thing, it really never ends up being safe. And sometimes, we even talk ourselves into something being dangerous when it really isn’t. Here, an unintended sideways look from someone becomes a sabertooth. Worse still, is when those with authority and power threaten you to get what they want done, done. This is the command-and-control management design. Fear here is an emotional blunt force object. Can you imagine a gymnast trying to perform on a balance beam while getting water balloons thrown at her? Yet, it’s the same scenario for people trying to perform various tasks in your company under threat. It seems to me, that the 70% from the engagement studies that are dissatisfied and would leave a job if offered, and the 51% who are actively looking, well, they’re just following the good sense of their fear. They’re looking for a safer and better place. They dream of a better place.


Paul Haury
Paul Haury
Belonging Coach & Evangelist for Heart-Based Leadership in Workplace Culture & Happiness. I’m a coach, a mentor, an optimist that nerds-out on all things in the social-behavioral and neurosciences for what motivates us in how we can be better, and, get us to with whom and where we belong. The paths that get us there follow roads of vulnerable togetherness, kind and honest challenges in personal accountability, and a deep curious appreciation for being wholly human in full potential. It’s here, where we land on the good side of our fears and aspirations, and make our dreams happen. We’ll never do anything as well, as when we’re doing what we’re doing with and for those we love. I help people create their own unique spaces to go farther and higher in their individual brilliance than they ever could alone.

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  1. Okay, Paul! I feel like my brain has already had a workout this morning, after reading this piece! It took me a bit to understand where you were going with the fear-is-good-thing, but I finally got there (thank you for Morty and Mattie!). I agree that the fear led to the opportunity to be vulnerable, which led to greater connection and that’s a good thing. The risk of this argument, in my head, is that managers and leaders reading this, that don’t get the nuance of what you’re saying, may find a way to justify the fear that they sow. I think there’s plenty of opportunities to experience fear simply in being human beings in relation to one another, that I don’t think we need to consciously add it into the mix as tool. My take-away from this is that if we can recognize what those uncomfortable feelings are (aka fear) and use them as a trigger for action (have a vulnerable conversation), then we can do incredible things. That, my friend, is something we’re in complete agreement on!

    • Well I hope it was a good workout Kimberly 🙂. Yeah, I actually considered what if they read this in a way to justify their fearful fear-based decision-making versus the good side of fear in making those decisions. I’ve worked with many embedded on the isolated self-preservation side, workplaces often systemically reinforce. I felt it was worth it to frame the topic up though, within the context and an example. People that ignore their fears or move ahead despite or without even considering them, will tend to be ruled by their fears. Myself included. One thing’s for sure, fear is part of our neurobiology and at the core of our being, it’s embedded in our survival circuitry.

      I really don’t look at fear as a tool. Rather, it’s an emotion we don’t get to avoid. It’s a state of being. Outside of belonging we get a fearful feeling, inside of belonging we can at least get a pull together caring feeling from it. Consciously adding it to the mix of baseline human understanding (not as a tool though, sadly it’s still currently used as a blunt force object by the majority of businesses and leadership models) gives us the advantage or at least opportunity in our mindfulness, to choose caring and compassionate responses.

      In my experience, the leaders I’ve offered this framework to, once they’re aware, move consciously away from fear-based command-and-control. Thanks for the good challenge. You sent me back into some good reflection and reevaluation Kimberly.