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10 Ways Fear Causes Decision-making Problems - And How to Avoid It

Executive Summary

Decision-making problems are usually at the source of most business and personal failures. Master business coach, Don Maruska believes fear is to blame.

  • Many of the resources we struggle over in business are limited, including elements like customers, market share, managerial roles, and more.
  • When a mindset of scarcity overtakes an organization, the people become protective and therefore less inclined to work together to solve tough issues, affecting the workplace in 10 extremely negative ways.
  • By encouraging yourself and others to consider the common good over personal gain, a renewed hope for success can be achieved.  

Why do typical decision processes produce ineffective and lackluster results? The answer is fear. Hardly anyone is immune to the contagion of fear that can envelop a tough issue and cause decision-making problems. Even the best and the brightest of us succumb to it.

The Legacy of Fear

The underpinnings of fear and scarcity lie deep within our culture. For example, business economics is defined as the study of how people choose to employ scarce resources. Classic definitions of govern­ment describe the process of allocating limited resources-who gets which slice of a very small pie.

Unfortunately, the primary reason that fear-driven group dynamics are so pervasive is that at some level they get results. Man­agers who win at office politics by spreading fear feel vindicated, especially when they advance in their organizations. So why should they change tactics that work for them? Employees of start-ups, afraid that they'll run out of money or that a major competitor will crush them, work extremely long hours, and often their on-the-edge performance gets good results.

The fact is that, although fear can provide near-term benefits, those benefits usually come at the cost of long-term consequences. Fear-induced behavior marginalizes and discourages employees who lose out in power struggles. Eventually these people stop offering their new ideas and voicing their concerns, because they fear they'll just be shot down. And the problem isn't just inside the organization. Fear can also cause missed opportunities to forge collaborations with suppliers or competitors and build new markets.

As opportunities and risks become greater, the potential for fears to overtake an organization's decision-making dynamics mounts. When difficult circumstances arise or big financial interests are at stake, groups damp down, becoming less open to fresh insights or unconventional thinking. The quest for control overrides the need for inclusion and respect, and all that's wanted are preconceived results.

Fear Gets In the Way

Fears plague organizations by setting up a system of neg­ative behaviors and responses that rarely vary. This sys­tem includes:

  • Negative thoughts: What you want is scarce.
  • Troubled feelings: There won't be enough to go around. You can never get enough.
  • Disruptive behavior: People become abrupt, short­ tempered, and self-protective.
  • Frayed relationships: Participants become suspicious of one another. Cooperation declines.

Fear Creates Scarcity

Fear of not getting enough stimulates ego-driven control mechanisms. This prompts win-lose dynamics, a contest of wills. Who will prevail and get the recognition, resources, and rewards? Who will lose out? In time, lose-lose dynamics become the norm. People who have lost power plot how to regain it. Those in control fear that someone will overtake them. These factions create the conditions for the very scarcity they feared in the first place.

A mind-set of scarcity limits what people can accomplish. Even more dramatically, it restricts their enjoyment of what they do and create. Instead of a positive, joyful environment, the world becomes a fear-filled place.

Fueled by adrenaline from instinctive reactions to fear-filled sit­uations, the cycle of fear and scarcity goes on. Eventually, frustration and exhaustion result in burnout, but by then the damage has been done. The people involved withdraw, needing time to recover so they can address the issue more constructively. Sometimes an infu­sion of new people and new energy is required to move forward. In any case, the toll is high.

Fears Provoke Decision-Making Problems 

The cycle of fear shuts down decision making in ten different ways:

  1. People get left out of the decision-making process. "They'll be disruptive" and "We don't have time to include them" typify the mind-set. Excluding people, however, undermines the breadth of involvement and support needed for truly creative solutions and successful implementation.
  2. Participants lose sight of what they really want. Expectations obscure participants' true hopes and their potential to work together. Participants focus on their own slice of the pie and how big it is relative to everyone else's rather than figuring out how to make the pie bigger for the benefit of all.
  3. The real issues get ignored or overlooked. The feverish quest for control clouds the picture and distracts attention from what's really important. Participants hide their agendas for fear of "showing their hand." Issues become more difficult to resolve because people don't talk about what is really in play.
  4. Participants miss important options. They jump on the first idea or defend their own, which keeps them from seeing other choices. Fears short-circuit the deeper integration of information and creative connections needed for innovation.
  5. Information gathering is biased and inefficient. Advocates only get information to support their own positions or refute others'. There are no guiding principles for focused and bal­anced inquiry. Some people study issues to excess because they don't know what they're looking for or they fear the conse­quences of making a choice.
  6. Participants become personally attached to preset positions or expectations. They're less able to receive new information and change their viewpoints. They ignore or reject information that could lead them to better results. In their minds, the risk of showing tentativeness or losing face overrides the need to find the best path.
  7. Someone or some group drives the decision with a personal agenda. With self-protection as the first priority, participants lose sight of the bigger picture. The quest for personal victory overshad­ows the potential of win-win solutions.
  8. All the choices and areas for potential agreement and opportunities aren't explored Majority or authoritarian rule often decides the path. Participants miss seeing the total solution and ways to fashion improved results.
  9. Decisions don't stick. Both winners and losers make poor learners. Winners revel in self-congratulation. Defeated or excluded people rally to reverse the decision. In both cases, they lack the openness necessary to perceive changes promptly and respond productively.
  10. Dissension builds. As difficulties mount, fears increase. Dissat­isfaction spills over into other issues. Soon, even mundane issues become difficult to decide. The fear spiral takes hold.

Hope Stimulates Great Results

If the fearmongers and consequences of the damaging cycle of fear and scarcity sound all too familiar, it's time to make a change. Fortunately, no matter how bad things look, it's possible to do. All people-yes, even fighters and the nonconfrontationalists possess a positive spirit. That spirit may be shrouded in fear and thus difficult to find at the moment, but it can reveal itself in even the darkest and most contentious situations.

Tapping into this wellspring of spirit is the key to breaking the cycle of fear and getting results. The antidote to fear is hope.

People feel encouraged to explore their hopes when they sus­pend disbelief and entertain the idea that there is potential for improvement. And when they perceive common ground, they become more willing to participate in a cooperative process that stimulates win-win dynamics, which in turn produce win-win results (i.e., solutions that support the participants' shared hopes). The outcome is real improvement that encourages participants to sustain the cycle together.

You don't have to believe that your situation will improve, how­ever, in order to get started. Simply following the ten steps on reaching agreements on even the toughest issues that guide you to explore your shared hopes and provide cooperative practices to realize them will get you going.

Pursuing shared hopes, rather than fearful expectations, frees participants to identify and develop superior solutions. Considering the greater good (for oneself and the larger organization) is a radical concept in our individualistic culture. Yet it is exactly our willing­ness to let go of our own piece of the pie that is the first step in cre­ating a more satisfying pie for all.

Don Maruska

As a founder and CEO of three Silicon Valley companies, venture investor, and recipient of the National Innovators Award, Don writes and speaks from a broad base of experience. His lifelong passions for creativity, translating innovative ideas into practical applications, and bringing out the best in others stimulate his work. His books, keynote speeches, and workshops guide audiences to fulfill their hopes in powerful, practical, and profitable ways.

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