Think before acting. You can’t be too careful. An ounce of prevention is better than cure.
Yes, it is a dangerous world and there are many good reasons to be afraid. So much, in fact, that we have an encyclopedia of conditions associated with fear. Arachnophobia is the fear of spiders. Acrophobia is the fear of heights. Aerophobia is the fear of flying. Even if we don’t experience them ourselves, we can sympathize with those who suffer from traumatic forebodings.
But there are other fears that seem less grounded in reality. Coulrophobia is the fear of clowns. Barophobia is the fear of gravity. Anatidaephobia is the fear of being watched by a duck.
And then there’s this week’s entry in the Ethical Lexicon:
Phobophobia (pho bo pho bia/ foh-buh-whore-bee-uh) name
Excessive fear of acquiring a phobia
In his first inaugural address, Franklin D. Roosevelt remarked that “the only thing we have to fear is . . . fear itself – a nameless, unreasoning, unwarranted terror that paralyzes the efforts needed to convert retreat into advance.
Three centuries earlier, the famous philosopher Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto wrote even more succinctly in his classic work The path of righteousness“There is fear, and there is fear. There is rational fear and irrational fear; there is courage and there is recklessness.
As with all things, the challenge we face with fear is finding the right balance. Reasonable caution pushed too far becomes paralysis. Decisive action unmoderated by discretion leads to reckless abandonment. Drifting to either extreme is costly both in terms of business decisions and ethical choices.
Facing the fear
On a recent flight from Denver, I struck up a conversation with my neighbor, who turned out to be a financial advisor. When I mentioned that my son worked in risk management, my new friend remarked, “Yeah, I have a lot of fights with those guys.
This is a good thing. Facing fear is infinitely healthier than running away from it or ignoring it. There are legitimate dangers in life and in business; knowing them is the surest way to avoid paralyzing terror or perilous overconfidence.
Among the worst enemies of ethics, rationalization is the first and fear the second. Worse still, when these two evildoers join forces against us, they manipulate us to fabricate arguments that support our fears. By pushing our imaginations to run wild, they conjure up the twin specters of everything that could go wrong if we act and everything we stand to lose if we don’t.
On the one hand, we are afraid of failure, afraid of making mistakes, afraid of being perceived as wrong, afraid of exceeding our authority, afraid of losing our job or our prestige. On the other hand, we are afraid of missing opportunities, afraid of appearing weak, indecisive or insecure. And, of course, there’s the fear of looking scared.
It is said that all fears stem from the fear of the unknown. Children are often fearless: they know they know nothing and they want to learn. But as we age, as our view of the world takes shape, each encounter with the unknown threatens to disrupt the understanding we think we have already gained.
What is the unknown? Isn’t it just the unknown land where true wisdom resides? If so, shouldn’t we be much more afraid of remaining in the darkness of ignorance or self-deception than of stepping into the light? It is true that we cannot completely uproot our fears; but we can manage our fears by playing against each other.
Instead of trying to conquer fear, what if we opened the door to the inner sanctum of our mind just enough to admit a small measure of uncertainty? By becoming familiar with both fear of action and fear of inaction, we can achieve a kind of balance that allows us to weigh our options, consider the consequences, and then proceed with a degree of confidence that seemed hopelessly out of reach as we tossed between seemingly impossible choices.
Hot wiring our wiring
Fighting fear with fear is ingrained in our nature. This is what drives the hunted fox to face the pack of hounds when chased around a corner. It’s what turns a soft-spoken 90-pound mother into a grizzly bear when she feels her child is threatened. And it can either snap us out of our paralysis or curb our impetuosity when we catch ourselves drifting too far to the extremes of hesitation or impetuosity.
Not a week goes by that we don’t hear of another scandal-ridden company calling for an autopsy to try to pinpoint when it all went wrong. Better to do a premortem which anticipates the potential consequences of action and inaction, thus determining whether the best course of action is boldness, circumspection, or striking in an entirely different direction.
Through reframing, we transform the fear of an enemy into an ally, from a saboteur to a trusted adviser who warns us away from the chasm on either side and steers us to a sure footing on the way forward. . Instead of fearing fear itself, by channeling fear we can find the courage to trust ourselves as we face the challenges of strategic and ethical decision-making.
Yonason Goldson works with business leaders to build a culture of ethics that earns trust, inspires initiative and limits liability. He is an award-winning podcast host, a TEDx speaker, and the author of Struggling with Grey: An Ethics Handbook for Personal Success and Business Prosperity.