Change Work May 2012

Nothing to fear but fear itself

War, revolution, riots, hate crimes - all expressions of the human capacity for doing unspeakable things to each other.  Sometimes they arise out of somebody's desire for power.  But I think they are often (always?) driven by fear.  Maybe fear of an irrationally imagined threat, or maybe of an all too real danger.

My title is a slight mis-quotation of Franklin Roosevelt.  What he actually said in his inaugural address was,  "So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself - nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance."

And that's the point.  Whether fear is justified or not, it makes us behave badly, foolishly and ineffectually.  So, for example, when there's warning of a shortage of some commodity our instinct is to buy more and to hoard as much of it as we can get hold of, thus making the shortage worse.  It's obvious that the opposite behaviour, i.e. cutting down on our usage, would reduce pressure on supplies and ensure a fair distribution of what's available.  But fear that we might have to go without or, worse, that others might get our share, drives us to act antisocially.

Fear makes things worse.  It stops us from behaving decently.

At work, people may be afraid of losing their authority, of not being valued any more - of losing their job.  Fearing loss of authority can make you jealous of your role and unwilling to let others get involved.  Or you may be reluctant to let go and allow your less-experienced colleagues make decisions without you.

The truth is though that you can't make your position or your livelihood totally secure.  In large organisations, decisions are made remotely and independently of your efforts. Your services can be dispensed with whether you deserve it or not.  And in small businesses, although you're closer to the decision maker, you're probably more exposed to the ups and downs of the business itself.

In either case, your place in the organisation may simply disappear through a process of gradual change that leaves you behind.  It can be so gradual that you don't notice it until it's too late.

The best defence is to learn and grow, to develop flexibility.  In 1956, Ashby published his Law of Requisite Variety which stated that the more complex and variable a particular system becomes, the more flexibility and variety is required to manage those changes. Ashby's Law relates to systems of all types, including organisations, economies, families, interpersonal relationships and mental processes.  It can be paraphrased as, "The component of a system with the widest range of behaviours controls the system."

I suppose the converse of that is, "The component with the narrowest range of behaviours is the most controlled."  We are all components of many systems.  You can influence the ones you're part of by exercising choice in your responses to events - or you can be influenced by them if you always react the same way to repeated challenges.

Flexibility of response won't guarantee that you'll keep your job, or that you'll always be able to make everyone else do what you want, but it will help you to be more in control of events more often.  It is the antidote to fear.

And I can't resist including another quotation from Roosevelt's speech where he criticises the old ways of doing things that have caused widespread suffering.  He's calling for a new, flexible approach (remember this is 1933):

"Practices of the unscrupulous money changers stand indicted in the court of public opinion, rejected by the hearts and minds of men. True they have tried, but their efforts have been cast in the pattern of an outworn tradition. Faced by failure of credit they have proposed only the lending of more money. Stripped of the lure of profit by which to induce our people to follow their false leadership, they have resorted to exhortations, pleading tearfully for restored confidence. They know only the rules of a generation of self-seekers. They have no vision, and when there is no vision the people perish."