One summer evening back in 1988, a gas pump exploded on an oil drilling rig 120 miles off the coast of Aberdeen, Scotland. Near the stroke of midnight, three roughnecks faced a horrifying decision. They could stay on deck with smoke filling their lungs, encircled by a fire so hot it was melting steel machinery. Or they could take option two. They could jump off the 10-story high deck into hypothermic North Sea waters now dotted with huge chunks of metal debris.
One of the men chose to stay on deck. The other two men leapt from the burning platform.
The jumpers survived the plunge and were picked up by a rescue boat minutes later. The man who stayed perished in the fire.
“It was either jump or fry,” the survivors explained to a reporter. Thus was born one of the most enduring metaphors in modern business: The burning platform.
The burning platform idea says that if change agents want people to do something new and different—to take the plunge—they need to set fire to the ground under their feet. Otherwise, the thinking goes, they will give into their natural fear of change and their deep attachment to the status quo.
That’s the theory. But does it actually work? Does scaring your team into jumping get the results you want?
THE SCIENCE OF SCARED
The scientific research on fear as a motivator can be summed up like this:
Fear is good at scaring people out of complacency.
Fear is bad at scaring people into creativity.
For example, a recent set of experiments by Kyle Emich and Lynne Vincent found that teams driven by fear and pressure were quicker to take action than teams who felt optimistic and excited. (Score one for the burning platform.)
Here’s the problem: Those same fearful teams generated fewer solutions overall, and the solutions they did come up with were pretty obvious. When you look at fear from an evolutionary perspective, these results make sense.
Fear exists to help us survive immediate danger. The whole purpose of fear is to narrow our vision and focus our energy on a single urgent act. When a snarling bear woke up in the back of the cave, there was no time to gather Urg and Glug for an impromptu whiteboard session. Fear told our fittest-for-survival ancestors to drop the cave-paint and get those Flintstone feet spinning!
So, if you just want Dave in accounting to break his addiction to filing cabinets and log on to the new software already, Dave!—then a “jump or fry” call-to-action might do the trick. But when creativity is called for, fear often fails.
When faced with shifting customer desires, fear can shove leaders headfirst off a burning platform of lower-than-expected earnings and right into the icy waters of mindless cost-cutting programs, instead of shining a light on new avenues for meeting customers’ evolving needs and wants.
FROM SURVIVING TO THRIVING
The “Burning Platform” metaphor was coined by a talented consultant in Atlanta named Daryl Conner. For Conner, the vivid image of three men standing on the edge of a literal burning platform facing a life-or-death decision was a picture-perfect metaphor for his clients in the late 1980s. He had been watching leader after leader lumber through their response to the changes bearing down on them—from globalization and deregulation to technology disruptions and a post-Black Monday economy which was receding faster than their hairlines.
Was Daryl Conner right? Was his diagnosis accurate for that time and that place? Honestly, I don’t know. In 1988, I was too busy playing with GI Joes, watching the Dial MTV Countdown, and managing other affairs common to fifth-grade life at the end of the Reagan years.
What I can say is that Conner’s account of that pivotal era fits perfectly with everything else I’ve read about American managers in the eighties. Most managers were struggling to come to terms with the fact that the halcyon days of the Eisenhower-era were long gone. Back then “change management” was nothing more than a fancy name for organizing the coins on your dresser.
As a fellow word-worker myself, I applaud and admire Daryl Conner for concocting one of the most vivid metaphors in business history. It’s plausible that his metaphor was a brilliant solution to the problem of the time.
We now know Conner was absolutely right about one thing: Complacency kills. It was true then. It is true now.
Vincent and Emich’s study found that the worst-performing teams were not anxious or excited. They were more or less checked out. They brought to their work the same enthusiasm they brought to the airport bar during a flight delay. That’s why fear is still with us today. Fear does help us survive better than complacency does.
But if your goal is to thrive, and not merely survive, then there is a better way.
LIGHT THE TORCH
Previous research suggests that the emotional recipe for creative problem-solving is roughly three parts excitement and one part anxiety. That’s also what Emich and Vincent found. The teams that produced—and then executed—the most innovative solutions were made up of 4-5 excited and optimistic team members, but were also rounded out with 1-2 Nervous Nelsons who couldn’t help checking the ticking clock. A little bit of anxiety can be healthy.
But in the early 2020s, don’t we already have an over-abundance of anxiety? Do we really need to create more clock-watchers on our teams? I don’t think so.
Today, what looks like complacency is often emotional fatigue. Even though fear might combat complacency, fear exacerbates fatigue. The best way to combat that lethargy is with levity, not fear.
Today, we need a little less jump-or-fry and a little more dream-and-fly. Instead of explaining how catastrophic it will be to lose the space race, let’s illustrate how exciting it will be to put a man on the moon. Instead of scaring our people into taking a plunge, let’s make them feel safe enough to take some chances.
Instead of burning the platform, let’s light a torch.