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The Power of Negative Motivation

Posted 6 years 216 days ago ago by Randy Mains

Negative motivation is the act of forcing someone to perform by using threats or punishment. I’m not a fan of using negative motivation as a teaching method to obtain results from a student; however, I do keep it in my arsenal if all else fails. There was one occasion in my flying career when, as a senior instructor pilot for Bell Helicopter International in Iran, I witnessed negative motivation yield results bordering on the miraculous.


I was first exposed to negative Iranian-style motivation one morning while looking out the window of my flat at a house under construction across the street. I spotted a father and son in the small courtyard. The boy, I guessed to be about eight or nine, was picking up pieces of wood and bricks and throwing them. Even through the closed windows of my flat I could hear the father yelling angrily at the boy, telling him in Farsi what I could only imagine was to cut it out. The boy ignored his father and kept throwing things — until Dad picked up a brick and clobbered the boy over the head with it. The boy shook his head like a cartoon character, and then dropped the items, seemingly unaffected by the blow.

That incident lent great insight that would transfer to the flight line at work. As a new instructor pilot with Bell Helicopter I was assigned my first two students, Mr. Dadashan and Mr. Karbasi. The two young men had already received their wings, but they’d been sent back through flight school as a way to build their flight hours because there had been very little operational flying in their Army unit. Once they attained a total of five hundred hours, they would go to Methods of Instruction to become flight instructors.


Mr. Dadashan was a dream student. He was highly motivated; he did his homework and was always prepared. He retained what he’d been taught and performed well. He was positively motivated, that is, he wanted to be a pilot and did what had to be done to achieve that goal. Like I said, he was a dream student and gave me no problems at all.

Mr. Karbasi, on the other hand, was a problem. He was an underachiever. He was lazy, choosing to do as little work as possible and wanting to be carried through it. He would need to be negatively motivated. To motivate him, I had to hit him over the head with a brick.  

From our very first flight I could see Mr. Karbasi was going to be difficult. He didn’t know his lesson, the aircraft limitations or the emergency procedures. Because I was a new instructor for him, I gently quizzed him to try and find out what he knew and what he didn’t know. I quickly assessed him to be a below-average pilot. I told him he needed to study and come prepared for future flights.

Students were graded after each flight on a pre-printed form that they then had to sign for their file. I told him, “I’m giving you a satisfactory grade this time, Mr. Karbasi, only because it’s your first flight with me and I want the two of us to get off on the right foot. So tomorrow, please know your lesson, know your emergency procedures, and know the aircraft limitations. Otherwise, you’ll get a marginal grade, understand?”


“Yes, sir.”  

The next day he didn’t know his lesson, the aircraft limitations or his emergency procedures. As promised, I gave him a marginal grade for the flight and warned him again.

After two more days of poor performance, Mr. Karbasi finally earned a pink slip. Then he received another pink slip the following day. I finally told him, “Mr. Karbasi, I’m going to make a pilot out of you one way or another. We can either do it the easy way, where you get positively motivated to become a pilot and do your homework or I will make you into a good pilot, which will be most unpleasant.  The decision is yours.”


The following day he wasn’t prepared so he received another pink slip. “OK, Mr. Karbasi, I can see the only way you’re going to learn is to have a talk with your commanding officer.  You can explain to him why your performance is unsatisfactory.” His face went ashen. I’d warned him it might come to this, but I think he thought I was bluffing. I wasn’t.

At the end of that flying day I marched him down to the Iranian major’s office and we discussed the problem with him. “Leave Mr. Karbasi with me,” the major told me. “I will ensure he learns his lesson. You should see a marked improvement in his performance after the weekend.”


The next working day, two days after I left Mr. Karbasi with the major, he turned up with a shaved head. “What happened to you?”   I asked.  “The major took me to jail. In jail they always shave your head. Then they hung me upside down on a pole.”  I was shocked. “They did what?”   “Hung me upside down on a pole,” he repeated, not appearing to be fazed about what had happened to him.

That was harsh treatment to be sure, but I didn’t have any trouble with Mr. Karbasi after that. He always had the next lesson learned, his limitations and emergency procedures memorized. What had happened to Mr. Karbasi was a classic example of negative motivation, Iranian-style. In short, poor Mr. Karbasi had been hit over the head with the brick of negative motivation.


Five years later, when I took a job in the Sultanate of Oman flying for the Royal Oman Police and becoming the Police Air Wing’s head of training, I would make it a point to begin the first day of flight training with the story of Mr. Karbasi and Mr. Dadashan. If I ever felt my young Omani flight officers were getting a bit slack in their studies, all I had to say was, “Remember Mr. Karbasi?”  Their eyes would widen, they’d nod their heads … and I would immediately notice an exponential improvement in their performance.


About Randy: Randy Mains is an author, public speaker, and a CRM/AMRM consultant who works in the helicopter industry after a long career of aviation adventure. He currently serves as chief CRM/AMRM instructor for Oregon Areo.

He may be contacted at [email protected]