13/05/2010

By Tom Evans

There is a fine line between being fearful and being cautious in business. Both have their uses in preventing reckless and maverick behaviour. Some businesses are, of course, primarily based on fear. The insurance industry relies on our fear that something might go wrong. This is a business steeped in tradition which is centuries old and its products even built into legislation. When you renew your car insurance or public liability, you don't have much choice. Innovation is quite thin on the ground. Its survival and profitability is based on things not changing and us signing up faithfully for those annual renewals. When, god forbid, you submit a claim, your hackles come up sensing confrontation and that they might catch you out with the small print you never did get around to reading.

By contrast, there is a relatively modern business which is, quite literally, at the cutting edge. The cosmetic surgery business is mostly based on the fear of our own mortality.

Now there is nothing intrinsically wrong with either of these profitable businesses in so far as they provide a service to willing and happy customers. The only issue is possibly when an ethical boundary is crossed or an expectation is not met.

The fears which can debilitate any business irrespective of sector are the types of fear that limit growth and creativity.

They fall into four types which in turn clump together into two groups - namely fears that hold you back and fears that stop you moving forward.

The fears that hold you back are the fear of ridicule and the fear of failure. The best way avoid ridicule is to keep your head well below the parapet. The phrase that sums this up, which thankfully is out of common parlance nowadays, is "Nobody got sacked for buying IBM."

By far the most successful 'failure-avoidance' strategy is not to try at all. On your end of year review, there will be no black marks, just a note that you are a good, solid and reliable worker. There's nothing wrong with that other than it's a bit dull.

The fears that stop you moving forward are the fear of the unknown and the fear of success. Some people like predictability and routine and for them perhaps a career in traditional businesses like insurance, banking and finance is advisable.

So long as the "knowns are knowns", all will be fine. Only when Warren Buffet's infamous "unknown unknowns" surface, as they do in recession, will the boat ever be rocked.

The most elusive of the fears is that of success avoidance. One of the causes of this is when successes in the past have been equated with stress. So the best way to avoid stress is not to be too successful. This comes round full circle and feeds the fear of ridicule and failure. All these four fears are facets and corollaries of each other.
Fears are harboured in our unconscious mind and psychologists refer to them as gestalts - or patterns. They are often ingrained in our neural pathways as children - especially up to the age of seven. If you ever got less than a gold star for an essay, that can be enough to put you off writing for life.

Be careful what you say to your children. The phrase "Show me the boy and I'll show you the man," is based on this phenomenon. Any business also has its gestalts. They are broadcast as mission statements or in Best Practice and Induction manuals. They are also communicated as 'Chinese whispers' and gossip around the water cooler, while smoking outside or electronically in emails or sometimes externally on social media sites.

In this way, fears quickly become entrenched in business culture. They are however relatively simple to reverse.
The first step to take is to recognise the symptoms. It may manifest as a general malaise, a lack of performance or a tired set of products and services.

The second step is to embed new thinking that imprints itself on top of the old gestalt. Such new, healthier patterns can be imprinted either from the top down or the bottom up.

Apocryphally when President Nixon visited NASA in the 60s, he asked a janitor what he did. The reply was, "I send rockets to the Moon." Nobody scripted this; it was in the cultural DNA of that particular business in those heady days of space exploration. Imagine if you had a business where everyone pulled together towards the same goal. You would be unstoppable and unbeatable. The core of this strategy is to remove fears at all levels of your operation.
At the same time, it should be remembered that fears are not all bad. They merely serve to give us an indication we need to address something.

About the Author

Tom Evans is an author, a business catalyst and a specialist in clearing writer's and business blocks. His next Block Busting Workshop takes place in Surrey on 27th May.