Good food for good thought


This kind of attack strategy is aimed at raising anxieties so that a thoughtful examination of a proposal is very difficult if not impossible. People begin to worry that implementing a genuinely good plan, pursuing a great idea, or making a needed vision a reality might be filled with frightening risks—even though that is not really the case.

There are all sorts of ways to create fear. You have seen a half dozen in the library story. The trick is to start with an undeniable fact and then to spin a tale that ends with consequences that are genuinely frightening or that just push the anxiety buttons we all have. The logic that goes from the fact to the dreadful consequence will be wrong, maybe even silly. A story that reminds us of scary events in the past may not be a fair analog, but it can be effective in bringing up unpleasant memories. Pushing anxiety buttons is manipulative in the worse sense of the word. But it can be an effective tactic.

Once aroused, anxieties do not necessarily disappear when a person is confronted with an analytically sound rebuttal. If humans were only logical creatures, this would not be a problem. But we are not. Far from it….

We see this problem all the time when people are trying to help an organization deal with a changing environment or to exploit a new and significant opportunity. In one typical case, a sizable change was needed inside a firm. With effort, some people did develop an innovative vision of what changes would be needed and a smart strategy of how to make those changes. Then, in trying to explain this to others and achieve sufficient buy-in, the initiators ran into someone who noted (correctly) that the last time they tried a big change (in their case, the “customer centric” initiative), they were unsuccessful, and some of the consequences (impossible workloads for a while, a few good people’s careers derailed) were very unpleasant. Anxiety began to grow as others used the words customer centric again and again. No one made a perfectly logical case for how the historical and current situations were comparable. But that didn’t matter. An undercurrent of fear became a riptide, and the new change vision and strategies never gained sufficient buy-in to make the change effort successful.

Even if most people see an anxiety-creating attack for what it is, if those who don’t see the fallacy of the logic constitute more than a small percentage of a group, you might still have a serious problem that must be handled with care. Even a single smart or credible person, if made fearful, can be tipped not only toward opposing a proposal, but also toward using attack tactics that tip still more people. Anxiety then builds like an infection.…

People use fear-mongering strategies with voices that are beastly or, more often, ones that are oh-so-innocently calm. People can know very clearly what they are doing and why, or they can be completely oblivious to the way they’re acting. One doesn’t have to be an unethical or a self-serving person to use a strategy that raises anxieties and kills off a good idea. And that fact has huge implications regarding what you must do to deal effectively with fear-mongering and all the other attack strategies.

in John Kotter: Four Ways to Kill a Good Idea

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