Recently, one of our project groups was debating whether or not we continue offering a program that a few of our clients had become quite attached to. Despite its fans, the program had never quite caught on and was becoming more and more of a distraction. For more than an hour, we debated whether or not the program was viable or not listing pros and cons and making forecasts both dire and optimistic from different camps around the table.

Finally someone asked, “What are we so afraid of?” Within a few minutes, it became clear that the staff who worked most closely with our users were afraid that they would be perceived as untrustworthy when we suddenly pulled the offering from our menu. Support staff were afraid if we continued the project as-is that they they were going to start making significant mistakes on core operating procedures because of the number of distracting curveballs coming out of this relatively small endeavor. Senior leadership was afraid that the organization was losing a sense of sticktoitiveness that had so long defined its culture.  

Instantly, the nature of the debates changed in a profound and productive way. Arm-wrestling over assessments changed to proactively addressing fears and obstacles.

The majority of business conversations skip over a key element that every business has to deal with: fear.

There’s a lot of debate out there about whether it’s better to focus on assets or deficits. Do we focus on what we’re good at or shore up our weak areas? 

Fans of the Clifton StrengthsFinders assessment will starkly encourage you to give little attention to your weaknesses and focus only on the competencies in which you are strongest such as Adaptability, Command, Empathy, and Winning Over Others.

Jim Collins promotes a slightly more pessimistic point of view he calls “productive paranoia” in which teams actively seek out vulnerabilities and address them before they turn fatal.

More egalitarian folks tend to look at both sides of the coin. Almost every conference room has hosted its fair share of SWOT analysis sessions in which teams list out their Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats.

But I think there’s another category that we should discuss more in the conference room: Fear.

Organizations are made of human beings—not robots—and because of that, organizations are much more like organisms than mechanisms. Sure they have their strengths and their weaknesses. You can draw up a scoring documents or multi-axis grids to quantify performance metrics, but only leveraging strengths and training up in less competent areas misses a big part of the story. Because they are made up of people, organizations necessarily have fears.

Employees have fears. Leaders have fears. Communities have fears. Customers have fears. Donors have fears. All humans have fears.

What often holds us back from our very best work is not lack of knowledge or skills—it’s overcoming fears.

Sure competencies or incompetencies should be noted and addressed, but if you are only looking at report cards when building an organization—or even more importantly, a movement—then you are missing something big.

People have all sorts of fears:  fear of failing, of looking stupid, of losing esteem, of straining relationships, of being perceived as too demanding or not demanding enough, or just not getting it. The list goes on forever. 

An organization’s users have fears too: the fear being betrayed or made a fool; of throwing away their time or money; of being associated with a product or cause or style that won’t meet the approval of their peers.

I’m sure you’ve heard people if your organization ask things like, “What’s the problem? How can we do better? What resources do we have or lack?” But when is the last time you heard somebody ask, “What are we afraid of?”

“What are we afraid of?” should not be a rhetorical challenge to your organization’s courage. It should be asked with earnest and the courage it will take to answer. Honest responses will point you towards different sorts of needs than the average strategy conversation. 

As a stage improviser, people often tell me how terrified they would be to stand on stage in front of hundreds of people without a script and with good reason, it can be terrifying sometimes—not knowing exactly what is going to happen next but needing to find success anyway. The irony is that most people of all walks go through their days with no script but expectations of success.

Perhaps there is something about a stage that makes the fears more apparent. Even if you’ve never stood on a one, you can probably empathize with the anxiety that comes with a big client meeting, or lunch with a donor, or a surprise phone call from a frustrated customer. They are all stages of sorts and identifying the specific fears associated with each of them illuminates opportunities for growth.

I often find it helpful to ask myself what I’m afraid of before I go on stage in the theater, or boardroom, or the workshop classroom. Naming those fears helps identify the resources or strategies needed to address them whether that be as simple as a change in perspective or as intensive as identifying a new and robust training regiment.

So next time, try modifying that SWOT assessment just a bit and do a SWOT-F. Because fears aren't always barriers. Sometimes they're beacons.

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© Andy Zimney and Leading Off the Cuff, 2015.

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Andy Zimney is an organizational leader, coach, improviser, speaker, and facilitator. Andy is founder and principal at Leading Off the Cuff: Where exploration meets execution.