When I was growing up in the Chicago suburbs, the Cubs shaped (warped?) my character every summer.

The team, needless to say, was awful, but we had our great players: Sweet swingin’ Billy Williams, pizza-sellin’ Ron Santo, and, more than anyone else, Ernie Banks, who was the perfect athlete hero for young kids. He was a great player (“Just think how good he’d be if he got to bat against Cub pitchers!” we’d exclaim to each other), he loved playing the game, and he was perennially optimistic and cheerful.

Whenever Jack Brickhouse interviewed Ernie Banks before a game, Ernie would say, “It’s another great day for baseball at beautiful Wrigley Field!” And at the end of every season, Ernie would say, “Next year will be a great season for the Cubs!”

Ernie was a wonderful ball player. I don’t think he’d have made a great executive, though. If I’ve seen one character trait that, more than any other, differentiates truly great executives from the rest of the population, it’s their refusal to let emotions blind them to reality.

Here’s a reality many of us are unwilling to face, but that every successful communicator knows: Your message must be aimed primarily at your audience’s emotions, and only slightly to the intellect. Otherwise, your audience will lose interest and won’t absorb your message.

Sales professionals live and die on this insight. Pretending the world is otherwise, or being unwilling to play the game to win, simply means you don’t belong in sales. (If you’re wondering, I’m not capable of it, and I got my coccyx out of the sales profession just a few months after entering it for that exact reason.) If you deny the validity of this insight into your own decision-making, you’re vulnerable to every sales shyster who learns how to yank your chain.

OK, brace yourself. Here’s an earlier version of the same advice, along with its authoritative source:

“Propaganda’s effect must be aimed primarily at nonintellectual elements of the mind and only, to a limited extent, at the rational intellect. We must avoid excessive intellectual demands on our public.” – Adolph Hitler, Mein Kampf

No, this doesn’t mean the sales representatives you deal with are Nazis, Nazi sympathizers, or Nazi dupes. It means they’re willing to embrace the realities of their profession, including tactics their competitors will use against them – even if Hitler explained those tactics in Mein Kampf.

How do you deal with uncomfortable realities? Hitler’s actions were horrifying. His effectiveness, though, was unquestionable, and that means you can’t just write off his insights into human behavior as psychotic ravings.

My friend Curtis Sahakian has written a white paper on this subject, titled “Business Application of Propaganda” (The Corporate Partnering Institute, Skokie, IL). It’s practically an inventory of human frailty. By reading it you’ll learn (among other facts) that people:

  • Change their beliefs more easily than their behavior;
  • Filter out messages that conflict with their beliefs;
  • Are strongly influenced by name-calling and innuendo;
  • Have a strong predisposition to perceive patterns in random events; and
  • Will do more out of fear, or to avoid pain, than for any other source of motivation.

Am I advocating unethical behavior by telling you these facts? Are you being unethical by learning them? If you learn the rules of propaganda and use them to your advantage, is that unethical, or are the ethics determined by the consequences of your actions?

I can answer only the first two questions with certainty: No, I’m not advocating unethical behavior by presenting these facts, and no, you aren’t displaying poor ethics by learning them.

Naïveté doesn’t make you ethical. It just makes you an easy victim.

I recently enjoyed the privilege of hearing Nigel Barley, an anthropologist with the British Museum, give a wide-ranging talk about the importance of non-communication.

Yes, that’s right. With all the emphasis on swifter communication, better communication, error-free communication, and the rest of it, Barley spoke about how good communication can mess up a perfectly good situation.

For example, the British East India Company embodied the British Empire for centuries. According to Barley, the home office finally collected and tabulated the accounts from all of its far-flung field operations (sound familiar?) in the mid-1800s. Like Wiley Coyote running off a cliff but not falling until he looks down, the directors discovered their company had been bankrupt for more than 200 years.

My own recent communications with InfoWorld’s readers — four columns on how to motivate employees — led some correspondents to conclude that I’m morally bankrupt.

Readers expressed concern in three areas: 1) using fear, greed, and other “negative” emotions is unethical — managers should appeal to employees’ better natures; 2) when managers analytically decide how to motivate employees they’re being manipulative, which is also unethical; and 3) I’m endorsing situational ethics, and that encourages unethical behavior, too.

A profound discovery of modern management theory is that managerial ethics matter to employees, and they matter a lot. This has been a major revelation to a generation of business leaders who previously figured morality belonged in the home and that including ethics in business decisions was somehow immature and idealistic. (Yes, I know there’s a difference between ethics and morals; it’s subtle enough to ignore in this discussion.)

Ethics matter. They matter from the perspective of self-respect, they matter from the perspective of employees trusting you enough to follow your lead, and they matter from the perspective of business success, because in today’s competitive labor market success depends on the talent you can attract and retain. The best talent will abandon you without regret if you reveal yourself to be an immoral weasel.

Ethics isn’t, however, reducible to a simple formula. If it were, philosophers would have long ago tired of the subject. It is, instead, both complex and highly personal. So here’s my personal perspective on the issues you’ve raised.

Last point first: I do believe ethics are situational. So does our legal system, which, for example, accepts self-defense as justification for killing someone. Opinion: How you motivate an employee (instilling fear of unemployment) has less impact on the ethics of an action than does your intent (wanting to save his job).

Issue No. 2: Manipulation? My own opinion is that honesty and intent differentiate motivating employees from manipulating them.

Look at it this way: You’re responsible for successfully achieving the mission of your organization. You can’t succeed in this with unmotivated employees. As a manager, you have an impact on employee motivation. You have to decide whether you’re going to do it consciously, through analysis and planning, or whether you’re going to rely on your instincts being good enough to do the job.

Issue #1: Appealing to negative emotions … what’s a negative emotion? Fear? Anger? Both are important to your survival.

Instilling fear is, in my mind, completely ethical if the employee legitimately has something to be afraid of, such as becoming unemployed due to poor performance. Failing to instill fear when there’s something to be afraid of — failing to create a gut-level understanding of the consequences — is as unethical from where I sit as letting a drunk friend drive.

Bullying employees — an act of self-indulgence, not motivation — is entirely different, and always a bad idea.

Humans aren’t Vulcans. Emotions drive human behavior. That’s reality. When managers and executives make decisions based on wishful thinking instead of reality, they make the right choices by accident when they make them at all.