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.