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Why You Delay Hard Decisions: Fear of the Bad Thing

Changing the Status Quo is Scary, But It’s Your Job

You have to tell Jim something difficult. You’re going to hire somebody over him, or he’s being taken off a project, or he has to manage a group that needs a turnaround and it’s going to be a tough job. You’ve been dithering about having this conversation for a while — weeks, maybe months.

On the one hand, you’ve been thinking things like “well, maybe Jim will grow, he’ll be fine, we don’t need to hire somebody more senior” or “ehhh, he could stay on that project, it’s not like he’s doing any really serious damage”, or “maybe I’ll spend more time with the subpar group and just deal”. You’ve been trying to convince yourself that the status quo is OK, or is going to change, magically — somehow something will happen (unspecified) and all will be well.

And on the other hand, you’ve been torturing yourself with Thoughts of the Bad Thing. “Jim will quit, and he’s the only person that knows Important Stuff” or “Jim will get demotivated, and the last thing we need around here is another demotivated engineer!”. Or just, “Jim is going to take this really, really badly and I don’t want to be in the room when he does”.

The Thoughts of the Bad Thing are not pleasant and lead to Fear of the Bad Thing, which paralyses you.

So time passes as you sit, stuck between these two unpleasant possible futures: a status quo that isn’t right, and The Bad Thing.

Humans Don’t Like Change. But Leaders Have to Create It

Humans prefer the status quo, even if it’s bad. It’s known. We understand its rhythms and consequences. We know where we stand. We are weirdly hopeful about it. Something will turn up! People will begin to behave differently! It’ll be fine!

So one of the most uncomfortable parts of leadership is creating change — deliberately upsetting what is present and building something better. Business, technology, and people are never static. Your job is to move before everything around you (market, organization, people) moves. Which means creating change. Which means heading into the unknown.

Which is where Thoughts of the Bad Thing show up. Thoughts of the Bad Thing are speculations about the unknown. “Jim will quit!”, “the group will be angry!”, “this will tank the business and I will never work in the Valley again”. We turn the Bad Things over and over in our heads as we try to balance the odds, guess the consequences, predict the future.

Thoughts of The Bad Thing get in the way, slows us down. It’s designed that way. Thoughts of the Bad Thing are a mechanism to stop us from hurting ourselves and the people around us as we break up the status quo. It makes sense to have such a mechanism! People are creative and love to act on new ideas. Good to have a process that makes acting on imagined futures emotionally costly, otherwise we’d forever be risking chaos for the shiny possibilities we can dream up.

The Problems With Thoughts of the Bad Thing

There are two problems with the mechanism though.

1. We Over-Estimate the Likelihood of the Bad Thing

We agonize for weeks about hiring somebody to be Jim’s boss. Finally, finally we have the conversation, and Jim says “huh. That’s disappointing. But I was kind of expecting it anyway”. Massive relief. And chagrin at the weeks we spent getting ready to break the news.

This happens over and over again in my coaching practice: a client will spend sessions getting ready for what they expect to be a difficult conversation, explaining to me the terrible scenarios that will play out. And finally, they will go ahead and do it, and the result is sometimes uncomfortable, but usually, all is well.

I know from experience that I can’t persuade you of this by stating it. I can only encourage you to notice all the times you expect a terrible result, and the number of times it doesn’t happen.

And, yes, sometimes the Bad Thing does happen. Which brings us to:

2. We Over-Estimate the Effect of the Bad Thing

When I was a VPE, I had a phonecall one day asking me to come down to the Redwood City office because the manager, lead architect and principal engineer — all three of them world-class talents — had decided to quit on the same day to form a startup. This on a project that was already in trouble.

It wasn’t a Bad Thing, it was the Worst Thing. We went through hours of uncomfortable conversations, but, no, they were out. Telling my boss sucked more than I can tell you. And the following two months were not pleasant. But, guess what, having the architect leave settled the team down and allowed a couple of other engineers to step up in ways we weren’t expecting. We hired a manager who was easier to deal with than the original. We never replaced the principal engineer, and he was a real loss to the company, but the project got done (late, but done), the company was fine (went public, big exit, all that). Everybody survived.

Dealing With Thoughts of the Bad Thing

So, Thoughts of the Bad Thing unbalance the decision you are making. The Bad Thing weighs too heavily against the status quo. You already know the status quo, and can find all kinds of ways of putting up with it, even if it’s, you know, not that great.

Two practical techniques to start rebalancing the choice:

1. Really Evaluate the Likelihood of the Bad Thing

Bear in mind that the First Law of Humans applies here: we have very little idea of what’s really going on inside another human being. So your evaluations here are going to be approximate. But engaging your rational brain starts to move you out of fear, and into a reasoned judgment.

How likely, really, is it for Jim to quit? Really? What’s his stock position? What do you know about him? About what he loves at work?

Put a percentage on the likelihood of the Bad Thing. It’ll help. 20%? 30%? Probably no more than that. More likely a lot less. Try it. It reduces fear, which increases your ability to be flexible and creative as you consider the decision.

And, yes, the caveat applies: sometimes the Bad Thing happens. I had a session with a client a few weeks ago where he was deeply concerned about a bunch of people leaving because of recent turmoil. We did this exercise. 30%. He felt better. And then a bunch of people left. He dealt with it — see point 2 below.

(this is classic Cognitive Behavioral Therapy by the way, in case you are interested in this as a general approach for dealing with anxiety).

2. Look Past the Bad Thing

So, what would you do if Jim quit? Who would take over some of his work? How dependent on him are you really?

You can see up to the Bad Thing, but you can’t see past it. The Bad Thing is as far as your fearful, compressed imagination will take you.

So push it a bit: you are creative, you have resources — sketch out your plan B and plan C and plan D. What would you do the day that Jim quit? Really? Who would step up? How would you reorganize? Think it through. Take your time, do it carefully and watch as alternative paths start to show up. You will very likely find that the Bad Thing is not the end of the road, but the beginning of a whole series of other places to go.

3. Don’t Wait — Get Out of Your Head

Take some action. Talk to Jim. Discuss the decision with a mentor. Role-play the conversation with a trusted colleague, and if you can’t do that, role-play it in front of a mirror, or recorded to your phone.

Playing out the odds in your head for any length of time isn’t going to help you, or Jim, or anybody else. Fear keeps us internal. Get out of there.

Change is Scary, But It’s Your Job (Or, Part of It)

If you are in leadership, creating change is part of your job (and the higher up you go, the larger part of the job it becomes). Creating change is scary.

People are unpredictable and essentially unknowable. We have intuitions about what’s going on inside people, and we are often wrong.

The Fear of the Bad Thing is a flawed mechanism for assessing change and keeping us, and the people around us, from hurt and suffering. But it’s not a well-calibrated instrument. We can learn to work with it and become skillful with it, understanding why it’s there, what it’s teaching us and how we can listen to it, or not, to create the world we want.

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