Fear. It’s a strange emotion.
From an evolutionary point of view, it is essential to life. It heightens our senses, keeps us alert and improves our ability to prepare for the unexpected. It helps us avoid dangerous situations or escape immediate threats. The success of Homo Sapiens as a species can be attributed in large part to the value of fear.
However, it’s hard to be grateful for the vital advantages it has bestowed upon us when it consumes every fibre of our being. Vertigo-sufferers who find themselves on top of a very tall building only to discover a glass floor on the observation deck (thanks for that ANZ SkyTower) will know its crippling effect. Logic, reason, objectivity and facts fly out the door, and in their place come irrationality, absurdity, distortion and self-deception. The glass will crack, the tower is swaying, why did I eat that extra sausage for breakfast…..?
So, while fear can keep us alive, it can also fundamentally distort how we see the world. And that’s not just a problem for a middle-aged man spread-eagled on the 35th floor of Auckland’s premier tourist attraction.
It can prevent us from helping others in need (I might catch something), considering different points of view (I might be wrong) or changing our minds (I might look weak and indecisive). It stops us from embracing new experiences (I might not enjoy it), initiating new relationships (I might be rejected) or sharing important insights (I might be criticized).
But worse than that, fear can negatively shape how groups, communities and even whole societies behave.
According to that font-of-all-knowledge Wikipedia, “fear may be politically and culturally manipulated to persuade citizenry of ideas which would otherwise be widely rejected or dissuade citizenry from ideas which would otherwise be widely supported”. Even casual observers of politics will recognise how fear has been (and continues to be) used by populist politicians throughout the world to change society. Yoda kinda nailed it when he pointed out that ‘fear is the path to the dark side’.
The current crisis is a case in point. Fear seems to be shaping many of our reactions, from a disturbing rise in hate crime towards Chinese people, to the ongoing attacks on 5G telecoms masts in the UK in the belief that they are spreading the virus (seriously Britain – really!). From the backlash in the US against the quarantine, fearing excessive state intervention, to the panic-buying in supermarkets and social media hysteria that almost took YouTube down. Fear makes us more conformist, more tribal and more risk averse while simultaneously making us less accepting of differences, of outsiders, of deviation from mob rules.
It seems fear not only stops us from making calm, rational, balanced decisions, it actually reduces us to our more primitive, reactionary selves. And that is an issue as we face the greatest changes to the business world in centuries.
At a time when the demand to come up with new products and services or radical approaches to the challenges of the digital age has never been greater, the fear of unknown risks or falling transactional rewards keeps organisations and leaders wedded to the same tired old methods and tactics.
At a time when the success of business depends upon its ability to adapt to constant forces of change, fear of potential failure or ‘rocking the boat’ stops teams and individuals from developing relevant, powerful new solutions.
At a time when trust, honesty and collaboration have become fundamental to innovation and customer loyalty, middle-management fear of loss of control, power and influence keeps workforces and suppliers uninspired, disengaged and indifferent.
So how do we combat such a powerful and potentially destructive emotion?
Well, I don’t often quote government slogans, but I believe we need to be ‘led by the science’. Just as calm, rational evaluation of verifiable evidence, combined with fundamental changes in behaviour will be essential to get us out of the current health crisis, so too will they enable companies to navigate the choppy seas of digital change. Or to put it another way, our long term success requires us to “science the s**t outta this” (Matt Damon’s character in The Martian, 2015)
That means each of us must start to look outside our current information bubbles (however unconventional), accept relevant proven facts (however unpalatable) and acknowledge our existing biases (however uncomfortable). We must start to trust the experts outside our business, as well as the colleagues within it. We must let go of past certainties, pre-conceptions and conventions and forge new ways of working fit for the digital age.
Which takes us back to the beginning of our story. That middle-aged man (who shall obviously remain nameless – ahem) managed to successfully get back down from the 35th floor. It wasn’t pretty – but by trusting and accepting help from those around him, listening to the facts, and realising change was the solution, not the problem, he managed to walk out of there, one step at a time. Perhaps that is something we should all remember in the challenging months ahead.