Fear And Loathing In Business

The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” – Franklin Delano Roosevelt

Sure, when the four-term president said this, he was in his first term, and he was talking about the depression and as the history books tell us that turned out to be the least of his problems during his time as president. There was that little World War Two thing that followed a few years later.

But my point is that this quote is as vital today as it was over ninety years ago. 

I find fear, fear of doing anything, is the biggest challenge most companies face today, and it is actually the biggest challenge that most  individuals face today.

Years ago, I compiled a list of the famous “Fifty Reasons Why It Won’t Work.” It started off as a kind of tongue in cheek thing but since then it has become less of a joke and more of a wake-up call when people tell me why they can’t take action, why they can’t solve a problem facing them, and how they come up with unique and creative reasons why it won’t work.

What they are really saying is that they don’t want to take action. What they are really saying is that taking action scares them because they don’t know what is going to happen, so they imagine instead all of the terrible things that could happen if they take action. So instead, they sit there frozen and wait to die. In short, it’s often corporate suicide by inaction.

And the worst part of this rationalization-justification of inaction behavior is that they dig deeper and invent their own scenarios of what could happen if they take any action, but especially the one that is recommended to them.

Have you noticed that? We all do it. I do it. It’s the natural reaction we get when someone comes up with a new idea. The first thing we do is our minds go on a lightning fast search to find out what is wrong with the action. I cannot believe how quickly we can come up with what is wrong with an idea, any idea. 

And when you think about it most of the time these things that might go wrong are ridiculously inadequate and irrelevant.

Here are some examples:

  • You develop a new ad campaign. You create new messaging, the president takes it home. and comes back the next day saying that his wife, son, mother, father, or second cousin didn’t like it and he wants to do something else. 
  • A company puts out a newsletter sending it to over five thousand recipients. They send it out once a month for five months and it is well received. Actually, they are getting a twenty percent open rate and five percent of those people click on the hyperlinks inside the newsletters, which for those of you who know email newsletters is outstanding. But one day during a sales meeting one of the sales guys says one of his customers told him that the company was sending out too many newsletters, so  the company decides to stop sending them out. Whaaat? Don’t laugh, this has happened a number of times with the companies I work with. We tend to listen to the worst outliers and ignore the majority.  We all do it. Just imagine if Proctor and Gamble stopped their ads every time someone told them they hated Mr. Whipple?
  • A company needs a new strategy, a new direction. Things are not going well. So, they decide to start an initiative to develop a new strategy with new sales tactics. But they get nowhere because every time a new idea is laid out on the table someone quickly comes up with the fifty reasons why it won’t work. The people around the table are so adept at this (how do you think they got in this position in the first place?) that after a week of meetings much to the chagrin of the innovators and the delight of the luddites and fear mongers, they do nothing, absolutely nothing and they go out of business in six months. That ladies and gentlemen, is the classic case of,  “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

Please, please, please stop doing this. Stop being afraid of change. If you think of all of the world’s great innovators, the only thing between them and us is that they overcame their fear of change, they overcame their fear of failure and had the courage to embrace change and the audacity to change the future. It’s only common sense.