Fear – The Greatest Threat To Business Today
I have been part of the Fortune 500 community for over two decades and as a result of my experience, here is one thing that I can say with great certainty: the greatest danger to our business today, is not China, not cyber-terrorism, not even an unforeseen economic downturn; rather it is fear.
Put simply our business community is awash in fear.
Take Your Pick
What are people afraid of? In a word, everything: afraid of not making bonus, afraid of not getting promoted, afraid of losing their influence, title, budget, etc. Heck, I even had one boss who’s biggest fear was losing her office (no lie).
Hunker Down and Do Nothing
When fear thrives in a corporate environment, people behave very conservatively. Making decisions based on what they don’t want, people and organizations pick the least risky course of action, or worse, no action. This, in turn, leads to complacency or, ruthlessly protecting the status quo.
The Cost of Inaction
Chronic conservatism may seem like a relatively benign organizational trait until you consider the ramifications of such behavior:
Multiple senior leaders within Equifax knew of the potential security vulnerabilities but chose to maintain the status quo. Some for fear of negatively affecting the P&L due to the large capital outlay that would accompany a security fix; others for fear of their career if they insisted the issue be addressed.
In this case, the result of inaction was a massive data breach that affected nearly every adult in the US. For those who chose to ignore the situation, legal investigations and class action lawsuits mark what is just the beginning of a long process to correct something that could have been addressed had fear not dictated management’s decision.
In a less nefarious, but no less egregious example: in 1975, Kodak actually invented the first digital camera, but chose to do nothing with it for fear of hurting its lucrative film business.
The fear-driven decision to maintain the status quo not only cost Kodak a first mover advantage in a brand new technology but their overall position as the undisputed king of imaging. In January 2012 the company declared bankruptcy.
It Doesn’t Have To Be This Way
Unlike a lot of business articles and memes, I’m not going to assert that fear exists only in the mind and to defeat it we simply take away its energy by focusing on positive things.
Yes, it exists only in our minds; however, the brain treats it as real and tangible threat to our existence. As a result, our ancient survival mechanisms kick in and compel us to make decisions that protect us. In the case of business – take the safest action possible. For a very good explanation of how primitive instincts override a rational mind, I recommend Daniel Goleman’s 1996 book, Emotional Intelligence.
There is, however, a proven and effective way to deal with fear and keep it from driving your decisions.
The publishing industry has no shortage of titles on how to effectively manage one’s business. This is because business literature is in itself – a business. So in order to keep themselves relevant, publishers, academics, consultants and others who are heavily invested in the field put out a steady stream of titles, theories and consulting approaches in an effort to shape the next business trend.
Corporate leaders, eager to get a leg up on their competition, seize on these trends and usher in the latest management practice “du jour”.
Planning Solves Everything
However, one thing that will never change, despite the latest business trend, is that planning is the most effective way to deal with fear.
Here’s the reason why planning is so effective: If you truly dissect fear you’ll understand that it is simply the brain’s reaction to the unknown. As referenced above, it’s a holdover from our less developed self when we lived in a world in which literally everything had the ability to kill us.
Therefore, the key is to strip away the unknown and essentially walk the brain back from its alarm response and get it out of the fear/survival mode.
This is why planning is so effective. Because once you have a plan, you have demystified the situation. The unknown becomes a “known” path forward and you have essentially taken the fuel away from fear and put YOU in CONTROL of the situation. The brain, in turn, reacts in a much different way when it has a sense of control – it allows people to have a sense of confidence, certainty, and optimism.
So how do you plan? Simple.
1. Outline your “Current State”
You look at the circumstances in front of you right now and put it in writing. This is your “current state”.
2. Map Out Your “Desired State”
Identify what the ideal situation looks like. What is the best resolution for a problem or situation you’re dealing with? Make sure you write it out. This is your “Desired State”.
3. Fill In The Gap
This is a “Gap Analysis”. To “bridge” the current state to the desired state, you simply fill the “gap” between the two with the actions you need to take.
The “gap analysis” is one of the oldest and most effective tactics in business. It establishes a way forward and provides you with a sense of control – sucking all the energy out of fear.
Without fear, you make better decisions and act as a leader, rather than one of the cowering herd.
You’ll find that this process acts as a force multiplier when it comes to courage. Once you free yourself from fear, you’ll make better decisions and your confidence will grow exponentially, ultimately exuding out to the greater organization.
Over time, this confidence and courage will affect real change. Creating positive change is what separates real leaders from just another manager.
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