Last week, I posted about the four primary derailers we commonly encounter when implementing corporate leadership training programs – bias, attention, fear and choice – and I dove a bit deeper into the first two. Here is a continuation of that post, with some additional detail around the two main derailers we found participants exhibiting within business simulations when confronted with difficult and complex situations.
Another common derailer that is not often openly discussed is fear.
Fear is showing up more and more at all levels in organizations and, in fact, it is the most common source of internal noise. Fear of failure, fear of making the wrong decision, and fear of our own shortcomings all affect the actions we take and decisions we make.
Any initiative can fail. The goal, then, is to fail fast, fail small, and then learn. This is virtually impossible in most organizations, where deeply rooted biases cloud the system behind the failure, which then distorts judgment and ultimately manifests into fear.
Poor decision-making creates a vicious cycle—that is, when poor decisions are made, this reinforces an already present anxiety about decision making. As a result, a great deal of time is wasted on undoing or justifying poor decisions, which again creates more anxiety about decision making. This cycle continues and further reinforces an individual’s fear to make important decisions. As a result, employees become less likely to step up, share innovative ideas, solve problems, or effectively leverage even the best corporate leadership training.
If workers are respected for the work they do, why would they go out on a limb to propose and spearhead a new project that may not work? If it fails, they think, all the hard work they did will fall away, and others will see them only as individuals with failed projects.
The fear of failure, rather than the failure itself, becomes the major barrier to organizational growth. Unfortunately, this fear is deep. A litany of factors has contributed to the many limiting beliefs that we all have in the workplace. As a result, our innate abilities are stultified, and organizations are the lesser for it. The truth of the matter is that many executives do want their employees to be innovative, but absorbing the potential consequences from a failed effort can be costly.
Organizations spend a lot of money on communications and professional development training programs in an effort to reduce fear or to repackage it under the guise of motivation. Regardless, fear remains, and it continues to crop up in new situations and to affect the way individuals and teams collaborate.
The fear of failure incapacitates even the most successful people. There are too many uncontrollable variables in every system to be certain of success.
A few years ago, a group of bright young managers were asked by their company’s executive team to put together a plan for taking a new product to market. Let’s take a quick look at their story.
The company was struggling. The last few quarters had fallen short of projections, and expectations (and pressures) were high for the new product. Instead of being excited about the potential, the team spent most of their first few meetings discussing how they were “destined for failure.” They concluded that the executive team did not want to be directly associated with the product, in case the launch failed. This conclusion colored their understanding of their role and robbed them of motivation.
Weeks went by. The team appeared consistently busy, yet made no progress. One team member later commented that during their frequent evening nightcap meetings, they would often bring up documents that reinforced their belief that failure was inevitable. Unconsciously, they were creating a collusive bond to ensure they would not be branded with the failure.
Fortunately, one of the executives noted their frustrations and lack of real progress, and he called the team together. They appeared emotionless as they assembled, as though they were prepared for the worst. He sat down and told them to unpack the clutter in their heads. “You were selected because you’re the best,” he reminded them. “But all the ideas that you’ve come up with seem safe, lacking both imagination and passion. All of you individually have done great things, and now we need you to think bigger, beyond anything you’ve tried before. Help us turn this organization around. We need you to focus and challenge one another. I know you can do this and I’m here to help.”
By dispelling the negative beliefs that the team was clinging to, the executive was able to turn this situation around. The team members embraced the reminder that they had been chosen because they were the best. It is amazing what happens to the brain when self-depleting thoughts are replaced with positive and purposeful thoughts. The executive’s encouragement went a long way in helping the team get refocused and ultimately find a solution.
This story had a happy ending, but that is rarely the case. Often, these situations fester for months and even years, ultimately eroding individual and organizational morale and performance. As my colleagues and I have seen throughout our business simulations, no one is impervious to the erosion of morale over time. When the emotional throttle is cranked up and the complexity is high, even the brightest or the most steadfast people become frenzied and make bad decisions and cast blame elsewhere.
With so many derailing factors to distort people’s vision, it is often difficult for workers to know which path to take. For managers, leaders, and leadership development consultants, the goal is not to control workers’ fear, which would be impossible, but rather to help employees be aware of it and learn from it—quickly.
In an effort to provide consumers freedom of choice, the business community has created an unintended consequence—there are too many choices. This situation inadvertently replaces the liberating feeling of freedom of choice with the burden of selection. A supermarket may carry more than 50 different kinds of cereals, salad dressings, and drinks. Restaurants can configure a meal any way the customer wants. A new car can come loaded with many seductive options. Sure, these are each small decisions, and consumers have now come to expect them. What people are not truly aware of, however, is how much these little choices have a big impact on the important decisions.
The human brain has limited resources and energy to expend to make each choice. In the time between getting up in the morning and going to bed in the evening, an average person makes thousands of decisions. Each choice we make chips away at our mental energy. We have a limited capacity of mental energy and an endless number of daily choices.
“Making decisions takes work,” says Barry Schwartz, author of the book, The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less. Schwartz points out, “The mere act of thinking about whether you prefer A or B tires you out.” The more choices there are, the more tired and less effective we become. Schwartz continues, “As the number of choices grows further, the negatives escalate until we become overloaded. At this point, choice no longer liberates, but debilitates. It might even be said to tyrannize.”
With the onslaught of products hitting the shelves, marketing departments and research institutions across the world are assessing the impacts that too many choices are having on consumers. One such study, which involved 328 participants and was conducted by Kathleen D. Vohs, Ph.D., of the University of Minnesota’s marketing department, evaluated the impacts choice has on people while shopping. She found, “There is a significant shift in the mental programming that is made at the time of choosing, whether the person acts on it at that time or sometime in the future. Therefore, simply the act of choosing can cause mental fatigue. Making choices can be difficult and taxing, and there is a personal price to choosing.”
Learning how to reserve and apply mental resources is essential for dealing with the increased number of daily choices in a healthy manner, and in the context of corporate leadership training, for maintaining the mental clarity to achieve maximum program effectiveness.
Michael Vaughan is the CEO of The Regis Company, a global provider of business simulations and experiential learning programs. Michael is the author of the books The Thinking Effect: Rethinking Thinking to Create Great Leaders and the New Value Worker and The End of Training: How Business Simulations Are Reshaping Business.