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August 6, 2020

Fear: The Original Sin of Unproductive Conversations

By Douglas Squirrel ,Jeffrey Fredrick

This post was adapted from episode 123 of the Troubleshooting Agile podcast with Jeffrey Fredrick and Douglas Squirrel.


We’re continuing with our tour through Agile Conversations and we’re up to the fear conversation. That’s when I remember enjoying writing some of the stories.

And fear is really important because it’s so foundational. I consider this the original sin of unproductive conversations, in a sense. It’s kind of the root of why our conversations so often go astray. In the chapter, we talk about several tools. We talk about normalization of deviance, and we talk about coherence busting as useful ideas about how to get past the fear. Also, we introduce a tool that we’ve never talked about on the podcast, which is the Fear Chart. We won’t go into that here, but you can find it in the book.

The Evolution of Fear

What we wanted to talk today is the role that fear plays. We will talk a little bit about something from the book, which is: we open this talking about the roots in evolutionary biology or evolutionary psychology, for why fear kind of ends up being our default feeling.

What we do is we imagine a story that is backed up by actual studies that people have actually done of how fear evolved. Why do we even have this emotion? What is it there for? Our story is about two people of indeterminate ancestry, they’re from long, long ago, probably living in a cave somewhere, and they have to hunt for their food. They go out to hunt for food one day, the two of them, and they hear loud sounds in the forest that are different from the rabbits that they normally hunt, and they have two very different reactions. You can imagine, as I tell you about these reactions, what would happen next? One of them says, “Aha! That could be a deer or a moose or something. We could eat for weeks!” That person walks forward and gets all ready to attack this large animal. The other one says, “Oh! That could be a bear or a lion,” and goes up the nearest tree. And the thing is, that all of us are descended from the second person, because the first person, although they might have found five or ten or a hundred dear, eventually found a bear, and that did not end very well, and the other person lived 100 out of 100 times.

The second person always managed to stay in the tree for a bit, and go find some rabbits and then have lots of babies, and that’s why we’re all here. Now, I’m certainly no biologist, but it certainly seems to me that that’s how it is that we got to fear and why we are hardwired to start with fear. It’s not that you think to yourself “how could this be a wonderful opportunity? How could this sudden shift in our working patterns,” for example, “be a source of innovation and new ideas and some way for us to be more successful?” We think, “my gosh, I could get a terrible disease. I need to shut down my whole business, we can’t continue.” Those are two very similar reactions to the two cave people I described. In the modern world, the “it could be a deer” response is actually much more frequently the productive one, but it’s not what we’re hardwired to do.

So we have now this sort of background. This idea of fear shows up in a bunch of cognitive biases where we end up having, for example, things like negativity bias, where we weigh things that are negative more strongly than things that are positive, even though, as you say, the risk-rewards of modern life are very different than our ancestral one. When we mistake an opportunity these days, it’s unlikely to be a bear.

I know very few agile teams that have been eaten by animals, right? But they often are missing opportunities that come by, and very often because of fear. I think this is especially true for conversations.

There’s this weird discrepancy between that fact and what people know is the right thing to do, what Chris Argyris called people’s “espoused theory.” All the values that we try to teach people about on this podcast and in our book, when we asked people, ‘do you agree with these things?’ They always agree.

And those are things like: “Should we get everybody’s opinion? Should you share your opinion? Should we consider them all equally? Should we search for information we don’t have? Should we get a common view on how to proceed and then make a decision and proceed with it?” All of those are universally endorsed. People nod.

And more than that! Often at the start of our workshops, we don’t just lay these out and say, “Do you choose the good column or the bad column?” Or “Should we share information or should we hide it” and then ask people to choose. In fact, we often give you a quiz up front. We make this claim that you know what to do. You know what would be a productive conversation. You know how to make good decisions.

And we test people. We say here’s a scenario. What would you do if it was up to you to decide how we make our decision? People lay out a process where they say, “Oh, you know, we should be transparent and curious. We should share information, then use that to make the best decision.” Great. Everyone knows that! But then there’s this weird thing: why don’t they? Why, so predictably, do people not do the thing that they know they should do?

It really comes back to this fear. Chris Argyris later talked about and used the phrase defensive reasoning, he basically said people move into this model, one unilateral control model, a defensive reasoning mindset, when there’s the potential for threat or embarrassment. And he’s really explicitly pointing out there the fear.

“The bear is coming, so we better all do the same thing. Do it my way. We don’t want to let the bear in. So we’re going to act in this very different way that may or may not be adaptive in the case of a bear attacking us, but isn’t adaptive in most modern knowledge work situations.”

Expectations vs. Reality

So people end up having this sort of split between their espoused theory and their theory-in-use: what they actually do. It’s sort of like they have this mistaken image of themselves in their mind. They see themselves as the person who goes, “Yes, I believe all these things! I believe in being transparent and curious, and we should hash these things out, and make the best decision, and not be attached with our ego to our own ideas, but really seek the best for the project.”

 And that’s what we do–except for a few exceptions. There’s just a few cases where we don’t do that. But that’s what we do most of the time!

So we acknowledge there are exceptions—when it’s the right thing—but they don’t realize that those exceptions become the norm! That’s all the time! It’s the analogy with a diet, as someone says, “Oh, I always eat healthy and I skip any snacks, you know, like cookies and cakes and things like that. Except in special occasions.” You say, “Well, what kind of special occasions?” “When there are cookies.” Cookies are special! We don’t normally have cookies. It’s like that.

We will do these behaviors of sharing and open discussion, except when there’s fear, and then we will not. Well, there’s always fear. There’s exceptional cases where people have managed to overcome their fears! But then there’s all these other cases which are just the norm, where they have a justification of, “Yeah, I was uncomfortable. I was afraid of how they might feel. I didn’t want to hurt their feelings,’ because importantly, as Argyris says, “The potential for threat and embarrassment?” It’s not always to ourselves. It could be to other people as well. “I don’t want them to feel bad and therefore I’m going to control how I speak. I’m going to make sure I weigh my words carefully so that they can kind of get the message, but no one feels bad.” Then we allow bad communication to happen because we’re valuing other people’s feelings and our own, avoiding embarrassment and avoiding threat, more than we’re valuing actually working through and getting the best decision.

But there’s a way you can use this prevalence of fear as a useful prompt: this idea that if you’re not sure where to start, you can use the fact that you’re probably fearful to get yourself started.

That’s something that came out of when we were doing very regular weekly sessions, and bringing case studies and looking back at things that have been unproductive, or maybe eventually we got to good decision but it took a long time. And when we looked at and examined the conversations, and said, “How could we improve them?” We found that there was this rule of thumb, that if the first response in these frustrating conversations had started with the words, “I’m afraid,” and then you just say whatever it was, you can kind of see what comes next.

It’s a really useful tool because we’re unaware of these fears. They’re so ingrained that they become invisible to us. That’s like the water that we swim in. We swim in the ocean of fear, and we’re not aware of the fact. It’s just normal.

When we prompt people with “well, why don’t you just start with the words: ‘I’m afraid,’ and see what comes out.” Then actually they would sort of discover it themselves. “Well, actually, yeah, I’m afraid that you might be upset” or “I’m afraid that if we make this decision, this other bad effect will happen.”

And they end up actually being more transparent. They start sharing their reasoning about why they were so attached to a particular position. “I’ve been arguing strongly for X, and it’s because there’s these fears that I have that I’ve never actually spoken.” And it is exactly this undiscussed nature of fear that gives it power, and what we try to get through to people is: it’s fine to have the fear. That fear is very useful. It is. There is something there.

Sometimes there’s a bear and you do need to run away.

The Bears of the Business World

We’ve had cases of people we’ve dealt with that were effectively, you know, kind of bears in a sense. There are people–just a very few, maybe two–who after I was curious, after I learned more about what was motivating them and after I was transparent about what didn’t work for me, I discovered that they weren’t people I wanted to work with. So I ran away. And so the fear was very useful. I had a fear of their reactions and their reactions were in fact very negative and manipulative and otherwise unpleasant. But that’s two out of a career of 20-25 years. We’re talking about hundreds, hundreds, and hundreds of people.

Most of the time, when I was fearful it was not well-founded. Most of the time it was a deer, not a bear. I still found the fear very useful. It did warn me in the small number of cases that were actually damaging, and I had wished that I’d been more curious in fact, rather than less. That I had found out and verified sooner what the actual situation was. But the vast majority of the time I would have benefited much more from sharing the fear, describing the fear to the other person. Being transparent about it and being curious about its source. It turned out not to be well-founded.

People often are in these relationships at work and in other parts of their lives where they’re in this fog: they have this fear as kind of a background thing, but they never do the work to decide–is this a bear or a deer? Is there really something to be afraid of? And that’s a real potential. But let’s dispel the uncertainty. Let’s try to get past that to find out whether there’s really something to be afraid of here.

A good way to start with that is to start with those elements that are exactly the ones you’re avoiding. And this is also something that came up at CITCON. We were in one session framed as “How do we manage the expectations of stakeholders who are not present?” You know, senior stakeholders who are too far away that we don’t get to talk about. And so this is very clearly a situation where there was fear. But they didn’t say “I’m afraid,” it’s instead “How do we manage expectations correctly?” And it was interesting because one of the things that came up was this idea of the intermediate stakeholders, the ones we can talk to, the ones that have to talk to those distant people. Really what we want is for them to be braver.

We want them to be willing to deliver bad news. And when I asked, “Well, what’s your relationship with the intermediate stakeholder?” I was told “It’s good.” And it was described as being “very comfortable.”

Which is precisely the problem.

That they were effortlessly having a comfortable relationship using defensive reasoning by sharing the elements of conflict rather than being productive and saying, “Well, look, we have this fear about what’s going to happen. What do you think of our fear? What are your fears? Is there a reason that you’re not passing this information on or you’re not sharing it the way we are?” Talking things out!

As a result, there is kind of this element, this thing that’s happening which I would usually describe as greenshifting. It’s this idea that we have an internal fear that’s very strong. We communicate it to the first person in the chain in a sort of weakened form. They may communicate it, but it’s in a likewise, weakened form until you get to this distant person who is hearing actually a very positive message that’s very different than what our internal fear is.

And there are lots of stories of this leading to disastrous results. The most famous one, of course, being the Challenger space shuttle, which we also tell the story of in this chapter, where engineers on the ground were pretty sure that it was not going to handle cold weather very well. And people who were actually making the launch decision, were hearing very positive obfuscated views which led them to think, “Oh, it’ll be fine. It’s been fine many times before, therefore it will be fine again.” And that’s precisely the kind of disaster. Perhaps yours won’t be as bad as an exploding spaceship, but can be just as devastating for careers and businesses.

When you greenshift and attempt to hide your fear in an attempt to keep your relationship comfortable, you don’t share the information that is embarrassing or threatening.

That’s what this chapter four is about, fear. We’re not telling you to not be afraid, but we are telling you how to use it usefully. There’s a lot of information content in your fears and learning how to bring them out into the open. You discover that—to use a phrase that has come from therapy—people with anxiety realize that the monster has no teeth. When you expose it to the light, when you bring it out and make it discussable, you actually can get a lot of value and benefit from it. And that’s what the chapter is about. We give you some tools and techniques for how to do that.

- About The Authors
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Douglas Squirrel

Coauthor of Agile Conversations

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Jeffrey Fredrick

Coauthor of Agile Conversations

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