HUMAN NETWORK: Is Motivating With Fear a Bad Idea?


“Bobby, you gotta help us.”
“What’s up?” I asked the three scouts who stopped me on the trail to the lake.
“It’s Benjy. He pulled a knife on us,” replied one kid.
“A really big knife,” added another.
“Yeah, big like a sword,” said the third.
“What do you mean, he pulled it?” I asked.
“He pulled it out of its sheath, and threatened us with it.”
“And, he poked it at us, and said he’d cut us.”
“And what did you guys do to provoke this?”
“Nothing, he’s trying to act tough, but he’s scaring us.”
“And, we’re not the only ones, he’s done it to several other kids.”
“Why don’t you tell the Scoutmaster?” I asked.
“We don’t want to rat him out and get his knife taken away. We just want him to stop, that’s why we’re telling you.”

I was 14 years old, a patrol leader, and one of the older scouts on a week-long camping trip. “OK, I’ll talk to him.”

That afternoon, I stopped by his tent.

“Hey Benjy.”
“Hi Bobby, what’s up?”
“I hear you’ve got a new knife.”
“My mother got it for me to bring on this trip. You wanna see it?”

He showed me a brand new Bowie knife; it had a gleaming eight inch blade – with the handle it was nearly a foot long. “Wow; it’s a beauty,” I said.

He started slashing the air with it like a sword fighter in a movie. “If anybody messes with me, I’m gonna cut ‘em good.”

In his hand, it did look like a sword. He was the smallest scout on the camping trip, and maybe the smallest in the troop, (by contrast, at 6 foot 2 inches, I was the tallest). I suspected he’d been bullied, if not by his fellow scouts then surely in school. “Benjy, you look cool with that knife, but you’re scaring the other scouts with it.”

“I’m just letting them know not to mess with me — that’s all.”

“No one is going to mess with you. Seriously, you’ve got to stop, they think you’re trying to hurt them.”

“OK, Bobby.”

After dinner that night a contingent of seven boys came by my tent. They were all talking excitedly at once, but it boiled down to: “Benjy is still threatening kids with his knife.”

“I’ll take care of it,” I told them.

I thought I was so clever. I still didn’t want to rat Benjy out to the adults, so I waited until he was asleep that night. Then by the light of the moon, I yanked him out of his sleeping bag, lifted him up over my head, and pinned him by his shoulders to the trunk of a nearby tree. Then in the most menacing voice I could muster said, “I thought I told you to stop scaring people with your knife? Well, you’re going to stop or I’m going to make you stop. If I hear of you pulling your knife on one more person, I’m going to take it away from you, and throw it into the deepest part of the lake.” He was scared.

“Do you hear me?”

“Yes,” he whimpered. I put him down, and left. I believed I had achieved my goal; I had intimidated him into no longer threatening people with his knife. Boy was I wrong.

Early the next morning I was awakened by the Scoutmaster and every adult leader on the camping trip. I was immediately stripped of my rank as patrol leader, and I was ordered to move my cot to the kitchen tent for the remainder of the week. I was shamed and humiliated. They were not interested in my side of the story. They made it clear that I had overstepped my authority.

In retrospect, I’m glad Benjy told the Scoutmaster that I scared him. If he had not, I may have come to believe that using fear and force were legitimate methods for handling problems. As a result, I’ve learned more peaceful methods that consider the feelings and needs of others. It was the last time I ever used fear as a motivator.


About Author

Robert Evans Wilson, Jr. is an author, humorist-speaker and innovation consultant. He works with companies that want to be more competitive and with people who want to think like innovators. Robert is the author of ...and Never Coming Back, a psychological thriller-novel about a motion picture director; the inspirational book Wisdom in the Weirdest Places; and The Annoying Ghost Kid, a humorous children’s book about dealing with a bully. For more information on Robert, please visit

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