Confront challenges by taking risks

by David Harris on October 7, 2010

In times of work-related crisis, most people tend to become more conservative in their work actions. That is the usually the worst thing to do. When confronting challenges, be bold, or be doomed to suffer more.

Why do people tend to become more conservative and cautious in times of work stress? Fear. They are in a fearful situation, and that fear can be paralyzing. It’s a completely normal response, but not a rational one. Unfortunately, in times of fear the rational mind goes and hides under the covers and whimpers a little. Cautiousness and conservatism are the demons fear sends to do its work.

Say a scientist doesn’t want to talk about his research publicly because he wants a head start on the field and doesn’t want to alert his competitors. Perhaps a researcher is concerned about issuing a press release because her collaborators might think she is stealing the glory. The driving emotion here is fear. But it’s not rational.

Let’s reframe this situation. In times of fear, people tend to become inactive. The response is neither fight nor flight. It is just to do nothing or not very much.

How can doing nothing get you out of a situation you are in? It will only work if you already know that the crisis will pass on its own, and in that case it’s not really a crisis. It’s just a situation that you should be mitigating. And that still requires action anyway, so there is really no excuse for being less active.

Doing nothing can’t remove the causes of the stress or crisis. Doing something can. What something? That all depends on the situation but something is better than nothing. Change the rules of the situation. Be creative in how you might address it.

The most important thing you can do in a time of crisis is take a risk. Again, if you know how to get out of it, it’s not really a crisis and you can just deal with it. Let the fear go. But if nothing you have done before has prevented the crisis or will knowingly help, the only other option is to try something new. That involves taking a risk.

So what risks could our scientists take? The scientist who is fearful of alerting competitors to his work is already taking a big risk that one of them will be him to where he wants to be. If that happened, he would have nothing left. Instead, why not push even harder than usual with the publicity? Make it absolutely clear what the scientist has done and plant a flag in the territory claiming it for the scientist. If he thinks he’s the only one who can make the discovery, there is a probably a significant (and mistaken) ego in play.

How about the researcher who is worried what her coworkers would say? Go the opposite way to what you’d expect. Don’t remove her from the picture; make her the center of it. But try an approach that would be impossible for her coworkers—being her! Add her personality, her humanity, her image—think video—to the mix. She can still find ways to properly acknowledge her colleagues, and describe her role in the work. But by presenting herself in ways that take advantage of her peculiar situation, she removes the primary concern she had. Of course, this needs to be tailored to her situation, but there will be a way.

Taking a risk is unlikely to make a crisis worse, or if it does, at least you tried, and you can try a new risk, but it does have the chance of making things better, and that’s a chance you don’t have if you do nothing.

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  • Sonia Furtado

    How do you go about convincing those scientists to take those actions? I can sort of see the ‘planting the flag’ analogy working on the scientist who has, as you put it, “a significant ego”, but how do you convince someone who’s afraid of the limelight to jump right into it?

    • David Harris

      Thanks for the question, Sonia–it’s a good one. I’ll talk about this at length another time but I think the secret to finding the path to success is to listen to what the scientist is really trying to tell you.

      If they don’t want to do something, they have a reason for it. If it is fear, and it often is, try to find out what they are actually afraid of. It is usually an irrational fear, like most fears, and can be handled. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy! If, in the case you mention, you can work out why they fear the limelight, it could give you the solution. I’ve come across people who fear the limelight for a wide range of reasons.

      One of the true advantages of getting to know the scientists in your institution is that when this kind of situation arises, they already have some trust in you. That goes a long way toward quelling fears. Otherwise, you have to really give them a chance to talk through whatever block they have in their mind so you can work out which way to go next.

      I know this doesn’t tell you how to solve the problem yet. That is because you first need to diagnose the issue a little more, and then figure out the best steps. I’ll definitely talk about some of the options in an upcoming post though.

      • Karen

        One of the things I have noticed in dealing with people in general, is that if they start to give you reasons for what they’re doing, then the battle is half won — now you can tackle solving those specific problems. (Actually this is the contrapositive of marital advice a character gave in The Sparrow by Maria Doria Russell: If you’re sure you don’t want to do something then simply say no and never give a reason. The moment you start explaining your reasons, you’ve lost the battle.) So, I like the idea, you present here, David, that the first step is simply talking to the scientists extensively — if you can get the real story (at least in the kinds of situations which you present here) then usually a solution will present itself.

        • David Harris

          Very good points, Karen! And I’ll have to remember the approach of “just say no”! :)

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