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The 4 Steps to Diagnosing Fear in Business

I often write about fear dynamicsthe behavior and communication patterns that emerge during interpersonal interactions involving fear or anxiety that any or all involved parties are feeling. For example, I was working with a client who repeatedly took hard line stances on negotiation points as his initial opening position. However, when there was silence in the negotiation or it appeared the other party might walk, then my client would cave and give in to the demand. I had observed this type of negotiating tactic before (as I am sure many have), but the consistency of this behavior and almost complete capitulation on virtually every issue was unusual.

As I engaged with my client, I stated that the dynamic he was creating was making each negotiation point more and more difficult because he was teaching the other side that he would give in whenever there was a pause or a fear that the deal might die. My client was self-aware enough to understand this and, to his credit, he admitted to engaging in this behavior. He also stated very clearly that he did not want to lose the deal regardless of the terms. This insight was very helpful to me in understanding the situation; knowing that my client and I understood each other alleviated my anxiety. It allowed me to be more aggressive in stopping my client from speaking and in avoiding breaks and other moments of silence that would eat away at my client.

Ultimately, we worked through the deal and were able to close the transaction. I believe that my client got a better deal after he and I were able to understand the tension between the two of us, and I was then able to act to mitigate my client’s fear response.

Fear dynamics play a role in what is often referred to as a culture of fear — the anxiety-driven attitudes, beliefs, and customs that influence the way a group of people thinks, behaves, and interacts. Think of a culture of fear as a herd mentality driven by internal and external fears. This mentality is not all negative; it can be beneficial in stimulating a group response to a threat.

  • In nature, for example, it can trigger a fight-flight-or-freeze response that protects the herd.
  • In business, culture of fear can motivate everyone in a company to work toward a common goal.
  • On the world stage, it can rally a country and its allies against a threatening regime.

However, the fight-flight-or-freeze response caused by a culture of fear can also be counterproductive and even dangerous.

  • In a business or in any group of people, it can trigger conflict (fight), avoidance (flight), or stagnation (freeze).
  • On the world stage, it can lead to war (fight), isolationism (flight), or despair (freeze).
  • Living and working in a constant state of fear will also have negative physiological and psychological impacts on the individuals involved.

As individuals, we can benefit from increasing our awareness of fear in ourselves as individuals and in groups and from growing in our knowledge of fear and fear dynamics. Ignorance fans the flames of fear and intensifies anxiety, while knowledge and awareness calm the flames. This fact is most evident, perhaps, when leaders use information and misinformation (for example, propaganda) to elicit behavior from the masses. Those who know better, who have the facts and are aware of how their thoughts and behaviors are being manipulated, are less likely to be swayed by misinformation and scare tactics.

Four Steps to Diagnosing Fear

Step One: To deal more effectively with fear, we first need to identify any thoughts and behaviors that may be motivated by fear. Think of this step as the first step in diagnosis. Any aberrant (uncharacteristic or unusual) thought or behavior is suspect. For example, if someone is being more combative than is usual for that person or more combative than is necessary in a given situation, begin to question that person’s motivation. It is very likely that the person’s behavior is a fight response triggered by fear. The same may be true if the person is less opinionated than usual or avoids contact (including eye contact) with others. In such cases, the person probably feels threatened and is responding through a flight or a freeze response driven by fear.

Step Two: The second step in diagnosis is to identify the source of the fear. Start by examining the following three areas from general to specific:

  • Cultural norms: A growing area of research is in the sociology of fear — the study of what people in different cultures fear and to what degree. For example, in a study entitled “Cultural Aspects of Social Anxiety and Social Anxiety Disorder,” researchers Stefan G. Hofmann and Anu Asnaani of Boston University, along with Devon E. Hinton of Harvard University, examined the cultural aspects of social anxiety and social anxiety disorder (SAD) and found that social anxiety (the fear of negative evaluation by others) is more prevalent in Russia and the United States than it is in Asian cultures. A reasonable conclusion from this study is that one manifestation of fear is instilled by the environment in which we are raised.
  • Localized norms: By “localized,” I mean smaller groups of people, such as a community, a business, or a family. These smaller groups may also operate within a culture of fear that influences the thoughts and behaviors of members of these social groups. For example, children often “inherit” fears from their parents, and people in businesses that nurture a culture of fear tend to be less innovative due to a fear of failure and the repercussions they are likely to suffer as a result. (Edward Deming’s eighth key principle of business success is “Drive out fear.”)
  • Situational fear: On an even smaller scale, fear can enter a relationship among two or more people involved in handling a given situation, such as a major (or even a minor) life decision, a family crisis, or a business deal. Even if only one individual in the pair or group is driven by fear, that fear impacts everyone in the group.

Keep in mind that fear can be productive or counterproductive. A single person in the group may perceive a threat that nobody else in the group is aware of, and that person may be able to steer the group clear of what would otherwise be a harmful outcome. Some people, perhaps because of their culture or the way they were raised and educated, are better able than others to “sense” threats or analyze situations.

Step Three: Next, identify the specific source of the fear. Fear is a feeling, a product of the mind. As such, it is always rooted in what we know, think we know, or do not know. To identify the source of the fear, start by asking why the person or people are saying what they are saying or are behaving in a certain way. (You likely need to ask this question of yourself and of the people who appear to be driven by fear (if you are able).) Continue to ask questions until you reveal the source of the person’s fear or uncertainty. Ultimately, you will need to ask the people who appear to be driven by fear in order to get at the root of their concerns.

In many cases, identifying the fear and its source is sufficient in overcoming it. I often find that when I call attention to the presence of fear in a business deal, for example, the person or people feeling the fear understand the motivation behind their thoughts and behaviors, can determine for themselves whether the fear is productive or counterproductive in the given situation, and are able to make any adjustments necessary to handle the situation appropriately.

It is important to note that this process assumes full access to information and that you are working in a cooperative group. In an ideal world, people would be open to discussions of fear and their behaviors in a group generally, but this is not an ideal world. An important aspect of this diagnostic process is that even if you are able to work through the process only internally with no cooperation from others in the dynamic, there is benefit to you because you will either identify some internal fear that you have that is affecting the dynamic, or, at a minimum, you will have gone through a thoughtful and reflective exercise to understand the other actors, which will reap rewards even if it is not a full resolution of the perceived issues. Trying to understand someone and the dynamics of a group can be as equally rewarding as actually understanding someone or the dynamics of a group.

Step Four: In other cases, the next step is to deal with the source of the fear. If the source is a very real threat, the group will want to act on that threat. However, if the source is misinformation or uncertainty, you can always address the fear by providing whatever information is needed to put the fear to rest.

Most important is this: Never ignore aberrant thoughts or behaviors, whatever their source. They will not go away, and they have the potential of leading to serious negative consequences. Confront the behaviors, identify what is driving them, and address the source. Franklin D. Roosevelt was right, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

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Disclaimer: The information in this blog post is provided for general informational purposes only, and may not reflect the current law in your jurisdiction. No information contained in this post should be construed as legal advice from Stephen Dietrich, nor is it intended to be a substitute for legal counsel on any subject matter. No reader of this post should act or refrain from acting on the basis of any information included in, or accessible through, this Post without seeking the appropriate legal or other professional advice on the particular facts and circumstances at issue from a lawyer licensed in the recipient’s state, country or other appropriate licensing jurisdiction.
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About the Author: Stephen Dietrich is an attorney and author who has a passionate interest in the human side of business. His distinctive combination of legal and business knowledge, human insight, and dedication to clients makes him uniquely qualified to help corporate leaders and other C-level executives navigate high-value mergers and acquisitions, restructure transactions, and manage day-to-day operations. Through this blog, Stephen shares his extensive experience and unique personal and professional insights in the hope of stirring thought and dialogue that leads to ever deepening insights and understanding. For more information, please visit www.stephendietrich.com.

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