Why does fear fill the gap?
In that moment of panic, we forget to reflect on what type of gap this is and why it has been filled with fear. Leadership is a recognition of the gaps, that not all gaps are the same and how to prevent fear being the first response.
Image source: Susan David, Ph.D (love her work)
Fear and Gaps
Fear is an unpleasant emotion caused by the immediate or expected threat of danger, pain, or harm, but it is also so much more. We know fear sells in terms of marketing. We understand FOMO (fear of missing out) and the fear of failure (FOF) are significant drivers. We are aware that fear produces a unique reaction in the body driven from the gut ahead of the brain (Antonio Damasio research). Fear is a stimuli but is subjective and how fear is perceived is different for everyone. Different types of fear spread at different speeds. Brands and the media use fear and to create headlines and force change. COP27 and climate change agenda are not adverse to utilising this insight.
We should be aware that fear drives many decisions we make. Therefore, the interesting question becomes, “Why is it that fear fills the gaps between what we know/ believe and the unknown/ uncertain?” A further question on the link between fear and trust is worth exploring, but it is beyond this post.
Why is it that fear tends to be the feeling that fills the gaps between what we know/ believe and the unknown/ uncertain?
Peak Human Purpose
In the Peak Paradox framework, one of the peaks to optimise for is “Peak Human Purpose”. Each of the four purposes of the framework exists at the exclusion of anything else - purity at an extreme. At peak human purpose, we are here (humans on earth) to escape ultimate death by reproducing as much as possible with the broadest community we can. We also have to adapt as fast as possible. We have to meet our chemistry requirements to stay alive for as long as possible to adopt and reproduce at the expense of anything else. These form the most basic definitions of life with clarity and purity.
Whilst the purity of all the peak purposes might be controversial (even to myself), saying the purity of human purpose is chemistry/ biology does not go down very well; it is too simplistic. However, this is a model for framing thinking, so please go with it as it needs to be pure, and every other human purpose has conflicts with someone. The point here is that when we realise that fear and/or anxiety fills gaps, we understand that we are optimising for something deeply human - life, survival, and thriving.
The point here is that when we realise that fear/or anxiety fills gaps, we understand that we are optimising for something deeply human.
I am often questioned why I put “Human Purpose” as one of the peaks, and it is because of some deeply human traits of life that influence our decisions and create conflicts and tensions within us and our groups. Fear and anxiety are some of these feelings. I am neither an expert, counsellor or theorist in any human behaviour or psychology; however, that does not stop me from realising how much chemistry, biology and experience influence our decision-making, if we want to realise it or not. These disciplines are currently undervalued as is that fear is baked in to some systems from management, control and performance.
Different gaps have different fears
Different gaps have different fears sounds obvious, but it is not, as the only gap that fear is filling is the one in front of us right now. Fear steps in when there is a gap in our knowledge/ information. We hear a noise we cannot explain; someone is walking behind us or an imagined scenario. Fear is not limited to our personal lives and is an active component in the world of our daily commercial activities and actions. Geoffery Moores's Book “Crossing the Chasm” is about a book that sells by creating fear. The book is much more important than that and is a fantastic insight into adoption - however until you knew about the chasm, you did not fear it.
Without a doubt, life would be easier if only one gap and one fear existed. However, we have to be content with the fact that every moment we are dealing with different gaps (leadership, innovation, knowledge, information, experience) and different fears that come from the gaps we have right now and those we image in the future.
What do we image are the boundaries?
The image below illustrates two different gaps. The original thought was caught in an ESG session, so using this as an example. For some, ESG is a gap (think fear) between what is unknown and known and how we cross it (the gap on the left below.) For others, ESG is a gap (think fear) between what is known and the action they need to take (the gap on the right below.) At the recent Sibos conference*, where this thinking emerged, was a debate about the role data has in ESG and whether data can ever be useful because there are two gaps. A good question to ask is which area does your ESG data fall? This removes the ideas about for and against, and forces you to determine which camp your data represents!
The fear in each gap is real and, depending on the persona and team - determines how you will cross your fear fill gap. However, this model whilst “obvious” might not actually be a good representation of the issue..
Just Fix It
We (humans) tend to have an obsession with fixing things. The majority who will read this realise that we cannot fix wicked problems, usually because we cannot understand them. Even our systems thinking and explanation have limits because of the boundary interconnection problem. (the unknown consequences of your action on another system and vice-versa).
When you hear someone bark an order to “fix something”, we know it resembles the old order of control, dogma and hierarchy. There was a belief that in a more simple time, leadership should/could just fix everything. However, not everything is easy to fix (humans, climate, economy, inflation) and not all problems have solutions (my favourite is pure maths), and the majority of what we face every day requires us to walk past the ideal of a “quick fix” and wrestle with the complexity of wicked systems.
We should not ignore the power and pull of a “fix it” mental model. We all tend to do it as a first untrained response when faced with a fear, gap or problem. Because of the “fix-it” mental model, our gaps are mostly filled with fear because there is no immediate fix within our experience. Our early experience in education and business teaches us we can “fix it” by defining the problem and building a solution. To do this, we have to accept we must ignore critical facts that add complexity to the actual problem or lack experience to see such layers.
Management, leadership and MBA courses all spend a lot of time teaching us to ask, “what is the problem to be solved?” Usually, so we can determine if the pre-packed solution on offer aligns with the problem at hand. When we know the problem, we can write a plan. This fix-it provides a perception that we know how to cross the two big chasms filled with fears. This is not true because a “Fix it” mentality and language ignore struggles, dilemmas, compromises and paradoxes.
We, humans and our environment, are not a problem to be fixed but something to be crafted, shaped and moulded over time.
We, humans, and our environment are not a problem to be fixed but something to be crafted, shaped and moulded over time.
The purpose of the Peak Paradox framework is to embrace “fix it” thinking for simple things but then build a model that allows us to picture and imagine many of the complications of a dynamic interactive, interdependent system of systems. Wicked problems.
A single independent system can be modelled and might be fixable. A system of systems cannot be modelled or fixed as there are unknowns at the boundaries between the systems presenting unknown effects, dependencies and consequences. Not all humans have the same motivations, incentives or desires - a core identification in the peak paradox framework.
Moving on from the “fix-it” model
When we take out the “fix-it” thinking and redraw the two chasms, we observe that it is critical that executives are able to cope with leading in uncertainty and management who remain flexible so they can continually adapt the plan. I would argue this is why reporting and compliance boards fail and don’t work for any stakeholder, as they focus on the wrong model - “fix-it”
How does fear align with the Peak Paradox framework and thinking on sustainability?
“Fix-It” thinking defines problems and solves them or ends up with gaps filled with fears, the information gap. I see too many executive boards fixated on reporting, gaps and compliance, translating leadership into an instruction to fix it as there is a divergence between the plan and the actual. Leadership is surely about bringing vision, belief and skills to help bridge the gap, not by barking instructions to fix it but by providing the next base camp on an uncharted map. Stakeholder trust management to be flexible and adaptable so cope with change and the plan is there to change and not to manage to. The delta (gap in the plan to actual) is not to be feared but embraced and understood. Dashboards are a leadership killer
Dashboards are a leadership killer
Humans and the earth (terra firma, water and climate) need to find a sustainable compromise and are the same in this respect. We don’t need to be fixed, and we don’t need fixing. What we do need is a map.
Cop 27 “Fix-It” or map?
The obsession with 1.5 degrees to me is a problem. The earth will not end, but yes, it will definitely become far more difficult for humans on earth to thrive over just survive. The changes in temperature will affect some humans in some regions far more. Our favoured economic model is likely also to tested to a breaking point.
I am a massive supporter of SDG’s and change but my issue is that 1.5 degrees is a solution to a problem that we have not fully defined and depends on the “we can fix-it” mental model; The same with NetZero and ESG data. These are solutions to problems we don’t understand. These are wicked problems that should not be boiled down to a single number that no one can do anything about. 1.5 degrees is not a vision, a north star or a plan - it is a target. It should be the first camp on a long journey. However fear fills the gaps and drives a model that drives more fear into making the gaps bigger.
Perhaps we should step back to agree and determine what fears and gaps we are talking about.
* At Sibos 22 (the big banking, payments and finance conference), I had the joy of meeting a flock of old friends and meeting IRL some new ones I had only ever interacted with digitally. During one of the #Innotribe ESG sessions, it was good to interactively pen ideas based on the content as I sat with Yael Rozencwajg, which has become this post.