The Danger of Fear Based Decision Making in Business. Or Playing for Upside with Fearlessness

Jon Steinberg
Mar 27, 2015 · 3 min read

Fear is a hugely limiting emotion in business. There is a difference between careful examination of a decision and worried fear. Being free of fear, making decisions and acting based on creativity and probabilistic determinations leads to superior business outcomes. It also leads to greater joy in work.

This was crystalized for me by this recent quote from Martin Sorrell explaining a piece of advice that had been passed on to him by his father:

“no matter how dark the clouds are, [you must] have no fear.”

It struck me just how bad I’ve been at my work or life when in a state of fear and how good I’ve been when I’m fearless. It crystalized for me that while one can be contemplative and choose a level of risk, one must never let the clouds put him or herself into fear.

Fear manifests itself in business largely in the form of protecting downside instead of playing for upside. Employees or managers who allocate budget according to the old axiom:

“nobody ever got fired for buying IBM equipment”

Fear based decisions are ones that are not necessarily best for the business but rather protect the individual from real or perceived downsides. The purchase in this example is made not because IBM is what’s best for the business need, but rather simply because its impossible to get hurt for buying IBM. Even if the purchase was the wrong one, the buyer has no fear of repercussions, he/she simply says “I bought IBM,” regardless of the purchases outcome and avoids all harm.

Being fearless does not mean you act like an asshole. You can be fearless and at the same time kind, decent, and measured. It means you play for the win. This is less safe that operating from fear. Operating from fear has BOTH less upside and also less downside. Fearlessness carries with it candor and calculated risks that in certain organizations can get you fired.

As Jack Welch writes in his chapter on “Candor”:

It is true that candid comments definitely freak people out at first. In fact, the more polite or bureaucratic or formal your organization, the more your candor will scare and upset people, and, yes, it could kill you.

[Bold emphasis mine]

Candor is the starting point for much of fearlessness. It does carry risks, but it seems fitting that the title of the book I pulled the Welch quote from is “Winning.” You could win, you could lose, but you are only in the game if you go with the fearless candor.

Everything I’ve done that I am proud of has come in moments when I didn’t let the clouds get to me. I want for myself, my family, my colleagues, and my friends to aspire to no fear. We have all been through personal health or other issues where the fear is real, but in business, in most cases, you must try to have no fear.

I believe that certainly in entrepreneurial endeavors, it is the only option or chance at success.

Disclosures: WPP is of course a client. Jack Welch Management Institute is also a client.

Jon Steinberg

Written by

CEO/Founder @ Cheddar.com