I predict that this will be one of my most-read articles.
The reason is the old newspaper axiom: if it bleeds, it leads.
Take a moment and think about why you opened the email or clicked to read this article. Fear, uncertainty, and doubt are potent forces that compel us to act.
I was reminded of this while listening to Freakanomics, one of my favorite podcasts. A recent episode, entitled Reasons to be Cheerful, examined why we are so drawn to bad news over good news — what researchers call negativity bias.
In the episode, the show’s host, Stephen Dubner, interviewed Roy Baumeister and John Tierney, social psychologist and New York Times journalist, respectively, and co-authors of the book, The Power of Bad: How the Negativity Effect Rules Us and How We Can Rule It.
One of Baumeister and Tierney’s more interesting bits was when they explained that it took four positive interactions to overcome a single negative one. As I listened, it got me thinking about the challenges leaders will face as they seek to transform their organizations for the Digital Era — and why it may doom many of them.
The Big Idea: We’re Biologically Programmed to Respond to FUD
The use of fear, uncertainty, and doubt — often referred to as FUD — to encourage action is a well-trodden path to (at least temporary) success. From newspaper headlines to the sale of enterprise technology, if you want some to pay attention and move past their own inertia, you need only pull out the big FUD guns.
Baumeister and Tierney explained that the roots of our negativity bias trace back to our biology.
“Life has to win every day. Death only has to win once,” Baumeister explained. “If you miss out on a great opportunity for good food or sex or any other life-affirming thing — well, okay, that’s too bad…But if you miss out on a dangerous predator, fail to notice, that will put an end to your life. Part of the psychological mechanism underlying our work is that the mind was shaped by evolution to pay attention to risk.”
In a nutshell: evolution has biologically programmed us to respond to FUD.
Therefore, it’s no wonder that we use FUD liberally in all elements of society, whether that is in advertising, getting people to pay attention on social media (e.g., Fear of Missing Out — FOMO), or trying to get people to change their behavior within organizations.
It’s this last use, however, that concerns me.
While FUD can cause a momentary change in behavior, it will often have the exact opposite effect in the long-term.
The Impact: Fear is the Enemy of Transformation
The reason that FUD is so impactful is that it taps into our well known biological fight-or-flight response.
This natural response — and its ability to create highly predictable reactions — underlies management approaches as varied as performance reviews, status reports, and even gamification. We fear being singled out, ridiculed, or called to account, so we figure out what actions are necessary to avoid those negative fates and do them.
When it comes to driving meaningful and lasting transformation, however, all of this FUD has the exact opposite effect. And that’s the problem.
The reason is that scientists have only recently unpacked the nuance of our biological response to fear and have realized that our actual reaction is one of fight, flight, or freeze.
When we realize that we are neither strong enough to fight nor fast enough for flight, we go into freeze mode to minimize our pain and suffering — and maybe play dead long enough for the predator to get bored and leave us alone.
If you think about the broad organizational change we require to transition our organizations into the Digital Era, however, the problem becomes evident. This sort of change is way too big for any employee to fight. And unless they’re prepared to quit their job on the spot, there is no flight in the cards.
So, they freeze. They hunker down, become highly risk-averse, and try to wait things out.
And unlike the fight-or-flight responses, which last for only a few minutes (about 30, on average), the freeze response can leave us in a state of stasis for long periods of time.
This freeze response is so impactful, in fact, that researches suspect that it is part of what feeds things like OCD, anxiety, panic attacks, and even post-traumatic stress disorder.
The Next Step: Create Your Aspirational Vision Now
As a Digital Era leader, therefore, you need to go to pains to avoid using FUD or any form of fear as the driving force behind your transformational efforts.
Likewise, you need to ensure that you establish long-term measures of your transformational success. If you don’t, you will likely mistake short-term fear-driven reactions as meaningful and lasting change.
Here’s an easy way to remember this and keep yourself on-track: you can use fear to make someone dash for a hundred yards, but no amount of fear can make them run a marathon.
But a marathon is what you and your organization are running — and marathons require inspiration and motivation. Lots of inspiration and motivation.
The place to start is making sure that you have your transformational mandate right. If your transformational objective is fear-based, you’re on the wrong footing.
Instead, you need an aspirational vision of the future that your teams can see themselves in and which, ultimately, they can come to own.
Start by getting your transformational vision down. And then repeatedly deliver the positive message that describes where you and your team are going.
Remember, it will take four positive messages to overcome the negativity bias. And right now, there’s plenty of negativity to go around, so it’s up to you to make sure it doesn’t doom your transformational efforts!
Founder & Institute Fellow
Charles Araujo is a technology analyst and internationally recognized authority on the Digital Enterprise and Leadership in the Digital Era who advises technology companies and enterprise leaders on how to navigate the transition from the Industrial Age to the Digital Era. Having spent over thirty years in the technology industry, he has been researching Digital Transformation long before it became the uber-buzzword of today, and is now focused on helping Digital Era Leaders prepare themselves and their organizations as the macro trends of the primacy of the customer and the primacy of the algorithm collide, ushering us into what he calls The New Human Age.
Principal Analyst with Intellyx, founder of The Institute for Digital Transformation, author of three books, and most recently the co-founder (with his wife) of The MAPS Institute, he is a sought-after keynote speaker and has been quoted or published in CIO, Time, InformationWeek, CIO Insight, NetworkWorld, Computerworld, USA Today, and Forbes.