Ideas for Leaders #365

Mortality: The Ultimate Motivator

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Key Concept

Existing management theories fail to provide the complete picture on employee motivation. To understand what drives us as human beings you have to understand a range of complex psychological factors — including fear of death and denial of our own mortality. Death is a powerful ‘stealth motivator’ that leads to defensive and avoidance strategies in the workplace. 

Idea Summary

Fear of death is a core part of the human condition. It’s been associated with everything from the enduring appeal of religion and spiritual beliefs to the desire to reproduce and raise children. It remains, however, largely ignored in management literature and mainstream motivational theories.

Death is a powerful ‘stealth motivator’ that leads to defensive and avoidance strategies in the workplace.

Extrinsic motivators such as money and benefits, and intrinsic motivators such as job satisfaction and job prospects, are often discussed in isolation from the bigger and more complex psychological picture. (Nowhere is ‘mortality denial’ more clearly seen than in theories and textbooks on organizational behaviour!)

So how does death anxiety ‘play out’ in the workplace? Experience and anecdotal evidence suggest it acts as a powerful ‘stealth motivator’: people adopt defensive and avoidance strategies to help ‘manage’ their fear.

The problem for organizations is that not all of these strategies are healthy. While some people search for meaning through work and turn their anxiety into ‘positive energy’, others become overly reliant on work as a ‘displacement activity’ and divorced from ‘organizational outcomes’. ‘Maladaptive’ and dysfunctional responses to death anxiety include:

  • Hyperactivity and workaholism: ‘manic defences’ that lead to dangerous work-life imbalances and, ultimately, ‘burnout’.
  • Succession ‘denial’: failure to plan adequately for the future, refusal to step down and ‘let go’.
  • The ‘edifice complex’: egotistical or blind pursuit of corporate grands travaux (the great corporate building or impossible project that promises immortality).

All of these responses can pose serious threats to organizations. Workaholic executives, for example, might be motivated to adopt ‘manic’ strategies for growth and expansion — for example, acquisitions that are a poor fit for the business.

Employers and executives need to identify and manage the risks of death anxiety — and, where possible, take steps to convert the ‘stealth motivator’ into a force for good. With the right coaching and counselling, a ‘maladapted’ executive might be persuaded to ‘metabolize’ their anxiety differently and channel it into meaningful, rather than meaningless, activities. The grand plan or legacy project might, for example, become a programme or foundation that helps people once the executive is ‘gone’.

Business Application

The ‘stealth motivator’ is another reason to think carefully about corporate culture and ethos and the design of compensation packages. Unhealthy responses to death anxiety are most likely in ‘long-hours’ cultures that encourage, support and reward workaholics.

Organizations can also manage the risks by being more aware of the ‘external triggers’ — the ‘life events’ that bring death anxiety to the surface. These include:

  • bereavement and other loss (for example, the end of a relationship);
  • serious illness and hospitalization;
  • the anniversary of a loved one’s death or birthday or of another key event in someone’s ‘emotional history’;
  • ‘milestone’ birthdays such as a fortieth or fiftieth.

Events like these might be warning signs of vulnerability. Where they occur in combination, the danger might be serious. Managers and senior leaders will need to be sensitive to changes in employees and executives — and be prepared to intervene if necessary.

As stated above, sometimes, the most effective form of intervention will be professional help. With the guidance and support of a skilled coach or counsellor, the individual will be able to understand better the causes and consequences of their behaviour — and take remedial action. In the case of a work addict, it might be a question of agreeing a gradual ‘withdrawal’. The first step could, for example, be limited use of ‘always-on’ devices such as laptops and cell phones during evenings, weekends and holidays.

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Idea conceived

  • January 2014

Idea posted

  • April 2014

DOI number



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