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Gripped by Fear November 22, 2011

Posted by Jason in Management.
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One of my favorite movie dialogues is from Men In Black.  Even after all these years (1997!), it holds a great deal of truth – and indeed the movie itself touches on a fair number of human philosophies and beliefs.

J (Will Smith): People are smart.  They can handle it.

K (Tommy Lee Jones): A person is smart.  People are dumb, panicky, dangerous animals and you know it.

The clear distinction between individuals and groups is important, not just if you are trying to protect citizens from the fear of alien invasion, but even if trying to manage more mundane matters.  Any organization of any size must deal with the realities of psychology(of the individual) and sociology (of groups) to move forward and effect change.

Human fear is the most powerful emotion we have, and it can quite literally shut down our mental processes to the point that we become paralyzed.  Fear can take on many forms, but one of the most common is the stress that we experience when facing real or potential change.

Fear of the unknown, of a lost job, or of coming to harm all conspire to keep us in our comfort zones.  Our individual ability to reason and foresee longer term consequences and benefits is all that separates us from living solitary, completely risk-averse lives.  It may be indeed the stuff of our very civilization.

But while it is possible to reason with individuals, this reasoning depends on understanding each individual’s personal motivations and fears.  Groups do not have motivations as such.  But that doesn’t keep the individuals in a group from displaying behavior they would not otherwise.  Groupthink, biases, and a desire to not be contrarian can mask personal motivations and even make one deviate from their personal values.

Only by understanding fear – and acknowledging that it will always be part of any decision process – can we learn to work around it and minimize its damaging effects.