FounderFuel: When you feel an overwhelming need to drive URGENCY in your team

“What if I want to scare them just a little bit?”

…it’s a question many founders have asked when frustrated by the lack of URGENCY in their team.

An innate sense of urgency seems to be baked into the DNA of most founders. Layer in the pressure of looming targets, or times being tough, and the sense of urgency becomes overwhelming. When you see signs of others NOT having it, it’s deeply frustrating – and the search for ways to drive urgency begins.

The ultimate goal is to create urgency and focus, but without threatening a downgrade of morale, and that’s where the debate about fear comes in.

It’s easy to mix how you’re feeling with what is actually needed and that’s what we need to unpick first.

Take a step back and choose your response

If you start feeling like you want the team to ‘feel the fear’, it’s worth taking a step back and asking yourself Why?

Triggers could be pressure over revenue targets, stresses that something isn’t going to plan or frustrations with a person. All these are emotion-fuelled states, created by a set of practical factors. Recognising this differentiation helps guide your responses. We need to deal with the emotional and the practical separately, to be effective.

As humans, we want to be heard and understood. Yet your team cannot truly understand what’s going on for you. You have to shoulder a lot… all those different scenarios, all the worries about runway…. It whirrs away inside you and they just don’t get it. So you feel misunderstood.

It’s an easy leap therefore to think that sharing some of your fears, verbally or through stressed behaviours, is a sensible route to encourage a sense of urgency – helping the team feel a bit of what you’re feeling, and knuckle down and try really hard.

The challenge here is that this kind of unclear communication gets misunderstood more often than understood: It takes thought and empathy to really dig below someone’s initial behaviours and seek to understand how they may be feeling – so you’re more likely to be labelled as “grumpy”, “in a bad mood” or “stressed” rather than have your busy team-mates recognise that you’re feeling under pressure so they should act effectively to help you.

By understanding what is driving your feelings (and perhaps behaviours) you can stop yourself reacting (something we talked about here) and instead choose an alternative route to achieve that Urgency-plus-Focus-without-lower-morale goal.

Fear doesn’t work

The question still remains – if you explain the acute need for results, and what might happen if you don’t hit them, wouldn’t that drive some urgency and momentum?

There is a big debate amongst founders as to how open and transparent we should be with the team. The vast majority of those I’ve debated this with, truly believe in openness and transparency being good for a team. However, most agree there is a line. There are things we can discuss with other founders in FounderCircles which you cannot discuss with the team. That’s because fear – in a team – doesn’t work. All you get is… fear for the continuance of the company, fear for their jobs…

As soon as you hit this kind of fear you’ll get the opposite effect to what you want. Like a herd in danger everyone flees in different directions. There’s a shift from “we” as a team, to “me” and “my livelihood” and they look to jump-ship – exactly the opposite of what you want. The focus is lost, motivation tanks and momentum grinds to a halt.

It’s true there may be a few in the team who respond well to the challenge (perhaps the more competitive ones) and this may act as a motivator. But it’s very hard to get the balance right for all your team, and it’s more likely that they’ll act individualistically.

Why fear doesn’t work

When it comes to motivation and getting the best out of people, it’s helpful to get to grips with the Fear System versus the Seeking system – the neuropsychology that Dan Cable explores through the lens of job design in his book Alive at Work.

Humans want to feel motivated and find meaning: There is a part of the brain called the seeking system that creates impulses to learn new skills and take on challenging, meaningful tasks. Feed the seeking system and there’s a hit of dopamine, further feeding motivation, which drives the urge to do more.

By contrast, triggering the amygdala – the part of the brain that spots danger and triggers fear – results in completely the opposite – a reduction in motivation, and a contraction of effort.  Definitely not the definition of that Urgency-plus-Focus-without-lower-morale goal.

Motivating urgency in a different way

Since using fear to create urgency has some downsides, here’s some strategies to try instead:

Realign on Purpose – purpose is one of the three cornerstones of Motivation 3.0 (the kind we need in startups). If you have a short term goal that you need to create urgency behind then communicate it as a motivating team challenge and what it means for the growth of the company.

Create focus and clear the way – demonstrate the importance of a short term goal or project by stripping away distractions, side-projects, and less urgent goals. “If it doesn’t directly relate to the goal, don’t do it” is a powerful way to demonstrate commitment to the goal AND clear headspace and diaries to do the most important work.

Communicate. Track. Communicate more – display a commitment to the goal by adjusting your team processes around it. By orientating everything from team updates to status meetings around the goal, it is undeniably clear what the priority is.

Build a connection to beneficiaries – call-centre employees who were given the opportunity to speak to their beneficiaries before starting their shift raised 171% more money than those who had no contact, or read a beneficiary’s letter. How can you help your team feel the positive impact of their work?

And of course, in amongst all of this… you can keep releasing your fears and anxieties with your founder peers!


This is all part of a series of articles on keeping it together during tough times:

How to survive downsizing as a founder

Keeping it together when you’re feeling the pinch – a founders’ guide to emotion-regulation

Keeping your motivation topped up as a founder


Written by Christina Richardson, founder at weare3Sixty
Founder coach & trainer | Startup exec-team coach | FounderCircle® creator & head-coach. Passionate about sustainable founder performance, wellbeing and the leadership transition from founder to C-suite.

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