Kneejerks are Not Helpful

Frank Furedi, professor of Sociology at the University of Kent and author of “Culture of Fear Revisited ,” spoke in the March 2009 issue of Psychologies – England on the topic of fear. “We are overwhelming ourselves with the emotive language of the media,” he said. “We find it very difficult to just have problems; problems immediately become crises of apocalyptic proportion…we start to close down opportunities and look for guarantees.

Panic  This is an important point to realize as a leader. In times of uncertainty, it is natural for followers to look to their leaders for cues about what is good and bad, what is a crisis and what is only a problem to solve. While the media is certainly a part of the issue, leaders who are not aware of their impact on the panic culture can inadvertantly cause problems. In a culture of fear, it is not only that we are pushed into panic, but we are faced with a feeling of desperation and loneliness. One way we deal with this is to become associated with others who are panicking. Uncetrtainty drives us to look to others to see how we should feel.

Unfortunately, by looking to others who are responding in “apocalyptic proportion,” we are still unable to get our bearings. At the time of this writing, British Petroleum is embroiled in a truly high level crisis as the gushing oil in the Gulf of Mexico from their questionable and failed practices is causing untold millions of dollars of damage to industry and ecology. Yet the responses so far have been knee-jerk at best. The focus has been more on the politics and angst regarding the situation than on using available resources to fix it. The political battles, screaming media and volatile investors creates an environment where a reasoned and effective response is almost impossible to imagine.

This kneejerk reaction is endemic in much smaller situations that we face regularly as leaders. Sales drop a few tenths of a percent and we terrify our workforce with emotion laden messages. Efficiency metrics start to drift and we immediately begin talking about layoffs. An initiative takes longer to implement than we imagined and we begin talking about scrapping the initiative and starting again with a new one.

Strong leaders provide an anchor. They are not panicked. Instead they see the importance of measured action. They are not immediately influenced by the forces around them that push for immediate and short-term response. Kneejerk reactions are almost never sustainable and are rarely effective in the long run. A brief period of review and reflection can make the difference between chaos and effective leadership.

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