How Fear and Greed Cloud Judgement

To Flee or Not to Flee

As Harvey was closing in on the Gulf Coast, my in-laws made preparations to flee their house if necessary to holed up on the fifth floor of a nearby parking garage, where they had left one of their cars with plenty of supplies to tide them over if they would not be able to return to their home in the near future.

My family and I recently traveled to visit my wife’s father and stepmother to celebrate my father-in-law’s 70th birthday. Their house sits in a low-lying area of East Texas, which was subjected to flooding during Hurricane Harvey. Because Hurricane Harvey was such a slow-moving storm, it dropped significant amounts of precipitation where my in-laws live. The massive bans of rain swept their city over and over. My mother-in-law described how when the rain was heavy, the water would come within inches of reaching their front door. When the storm periodically broke, the water quickly receded. Fortunately for them, the water never entered the main floor of their home, thus sparing their house from flood damage. But during the storm, my father- and mother-in-law had no way of knowing for sure whether their house would eventually flood. My in-laws are nothing if not prepared for a natural disaster. They lived through the devastation of Hurricane Rita in 2005, which caused significant damage to their house. As Harvey was closing in on the Gulf Coast, my in-laws made preparations to flee their house if necessary to holed up on the fifth floor of a nearby parking garage, where they had left one of their cars with plenty of supplies to tide them over if they would not be able to return to their home in the near future. My in-laws were prepared to incur the cost associated with surviving the Hurricane Harvey: being ready and willing to evacuate on their own.

The thought of abandoning one’s home and worldly belongings is not easy to bear. When authorities urge residents to leave their houses due to fire, flooding, or some other natural or human-made disaster, some people hold out and risk their lives. In the abstract and from a distance, it can be easy to judge those who put their own lives and the lives of their family members at risk when they do not heed calls to flee. However, in the concrete, it can be easy to hope against hope that everything will be all right or that authorities are exaggerating the dangers. The reality is that people regularly perish or suffer injury as a result of natural or human-made disasters when their deaths or suffering were knowingly preventable. Nevertheless, people are sometimes unwilling to pay the price for the solution that is called for—which is often evacuation—to avoid death or injury. Even in the most extreme of circumstances, when life and limb are on the line, there is almost always a solution to the problem. As my in-laws' preparation for Harvey shows, the solution to a problem comes at a cost, which in their case would have been abandoning all of their worldly belongings. The real obstacle people have when faced with a problem is performing an objective analysis of the costs associated with the solution. When the cost seems too high, it can be easy to fall into the trap of a false dilemma, in which we believe that the problem has no solution. On the other hand, sometimes the cost is very high, but people are willing to pay it if it does not negatively impact them personally.

Shortcuts, Absolution, and Outsourcing: The Paths of Least Resistance

When organizations face problems, they will often call in consultants from the outside or rely on internal consultants to find solutions to their problems. What I have observed, over and over again, is that when faced with a problem, organizations often want one of several scenarios to take place:

Shortcuts: Sometimes organizations call upon consultants to come up with solutions that rely on thinking that there is a pain-free or low-cost escape route that has simply not yet occurred to the organization’s decision-makers. When this message is conveyed, it is often code for, “We know the answer, but it is too costly, so we are hoping you can magic up a more painless solution.” Solving problems always has a cost associated with it. This cost is usually in the form of making changes to how people behave. More specifically, the changes in behavior are often required in the organization’s leaders most of all. When consultants are called upon to help an organization solve problems, it is the organization’s leaders who must be prepared first and foremost to pay the price to overcome the presenting problems.

When working with one client, my colleagues and I were presented with a situation in which the organization’s human resources department was looking for a solution to a problem. The department was looking to sort out what had become a bone of contention between the human resources and the organization’s staff—the acquisition of living quarters for employees who were assigned to overseas assignments. The client asked for “out of the box” solutions. As my colleagues and I interviewed people from the human resources department and staff members who had previously been assigned to overseas locations, the solution to the problem became clear to us. Employees assigned to overseas assignments wanted more autonomy in selecting their housing. However, for legacy reasons, the human resources department maintained absolute control over the leasing process for reasons that were no longer relevant. The human resources department was struggling to keep up with the demands on its time in dealing with the leasing process, and the staff members assigned overseas were suffering from low morale due to the length of time and red tape associated with acquiring housing. While the client asked for an “out of the box” solution, we did not have to leave the box to see the solution. The solution was straightforward but had a cost associated with it: the human resources department needed to relinquish control of the leasing process to the staff assigned overseas. However, the cost of relinquishing control was too high for the department, and it rebuffed the recommendation. What it really wanted was for us to find a solution that mollified the staff assigned overseas without the human resources department needing to change how it operated. Like a monkey caught in the proverbial monkey trap, all it had to do was let go of the peanut to free its hand from the hole, but that would have meant giving up the peanut, which in this case was control. The department could either hold onto control and have the problem or let go of control and not have the problem. They chose the former. So often the solution is right under our noses if we are willing to pay the price for it. No solution is free, no matter how out of the box the thinking is.

Absolution: I recall once describing to a colleague a consulting engagement I was involved with, which he aptly described as “…them calling in a priest.”  The client was experiencing burdensome growing pains and not dealing with it well. The company asked for my help in identifying and implementing strategies that would improve overall employee morale and reduce friction that was occurring among members of the leadership team. As I listened to their story, I knew that their problems were very surmountable. But the more we talked, the more I realized that they had no intention of changing anything. They were aware of their sins. What they wanted from me was absolution. They wanted me to look at the situation and say, “Yes, what you are doing is all right. It's going to be okay.” They were not asking for me to charm up a pain-free solution as occurs in the shortcut scenario. Instead, they were well aware of the fact that they were making decisions and allowing dynamics to exist that were having a detrimental effect on the organization. However, like the human resources department described in the previous scenario, they did not want to incur the cost to improve their situation and simply wanted a “professional” to tell them that they were healthy and well, despite displaying obvious signs of sickness.

Outsourcing responsibility: A friend recently recounted a story to me of a large company he used to work for that once called in an exorbitantly priced consulting firm to help streamline and improve efficiencies. The increased efficiencies called for downsizing the company. My friend was asked to work with the consulting firm to identify where and how to downsize specific areas. Despite his protests that the deep cuts in personnel would lead to dangerous work conditions, the organization’s leadership more or less already knew what they wanted to do, and his protests fell on deaf ears. The reason they hired the consulting firm was so that they could outsource the responsibility for the downsizing to the consultants, despite the fact that the consultants did little more than put their stamp of approval—both literally and figuratively—on the proposed changes. In this case, the organization was willing to pay a very high price for the changes it wanted: decreased workplace safety for increased revenue. However, the organization was unwilling to put their name to the changes, instead opting for a convenient scapegoat in the form of mercenary consultants.

Calculating the Costs

The warning signs for a shortcut, absolution, or outsourcing scenario, both for consultants and for those being consulted, are irrational resistance to sensible changes on the one extreme and an eagerness to make radical high-cost changes on the other extreme

In all the scenarios mentioned above, each organization was either unwilling to pay the price for change or reluctant to take responsibility for the change. As I already stated, all change comes at a price. The real question is how willing an organization is to pay the cost for the benefit of the change. In many cases, the cost requires giving up some control. In highly bureaucratic organizations, control over certain systems, structures, policies, and procedures acts as a justification for an individual’s job or a department’s existence. In these cases, the cost for changes that represent an existential crisis is almost certainly going to be met with a high amount of resistance, and the organization will either seek a shortcut solution that costs little or nothing, or they will ask for absolution from their sins of mismanagement. On the other hand, when the cost seems low and the benefits high, organizations are often eager to accept the change if they can pass along the blame to a third-party puppet decision-makers who are not incurring high personal costs. The warning signs for a shortcut, absolution, or outsourcing scenario, both for consultants and for those being consulted, are irrational resistance to sensible changes on the one extreme and an eagerness to make radical high-cost changes on the other extreme. Both of these scenarios signal that fear or greed are clouding prudent judgment.

Organizations should ideally be willing to make changes where the cost of the changes has been considered dispassionately. This is precisely where good organizational consultants come in. From the inside, it can be difficult to see the cost of solutions to problems objectively, but the solution is more often than not obvious and straightforward. Consultants—especially those that deal with change—play two critical roles with it comes to addressing and presenting organizational problems. First, skilled and competent consultants can advise on what effective strategies are for implementing the solution to a given presenting problem. Second, skilled and competent consultants, if allowed, can help organizations quantify and qualify the costs of the solution in order so that organizations can make better decisions based on data and not out of fear or greed. I do not mean to condescend to anyone. Fear and greed and natural, if base, emotions that we all experience, especially when the stakes seem high. However, fear and greed almost always lead to poor, irrational judgment calls. An objective consultant can help identify and weigh the costs. Finding the solution is usually not the most significant challenge; the biggest challenges are accurately estimating the cost of the solution and then using effective strategies to implement it.

In the case of my friend, whose organization was significantly downsized and reduced services because of the increased risk, the company needed an accurate assessment of the cost of a solution to streamline and increase profits. A consultant willing to tell the truth might have been able to correct the course of the organization toward a less risky solution. In this case, telling the truth meant telling them that they were avoiding relatively low-cost and straightforward solutions to avoid accountability for the mismanagement of the organization. In the case of the organization that sought a shortcut solution, speaking truth would have meant telling them that while the costs of change were real, their fear of change was stopping them from solving a very solvable problem. No consultant can force change upon a client regardless of whether the client wants a shortcut, absolution, or to outsource responsibility. However, consultants who speak sometimes uncomfortable truths to their clients and do so in a non-threatening way open the door to dialogue and thought that transcends fear and greed.

Fear and Greed: Subtle Emotional Disasters

There are many people whose basic needs for food, water, and shelter are met in overabundance. Yet, these people seem trapped on a treadmill, constantly chasing material things that far exceed their needs. On the other hand, there are people who live their lives deprived of basic needs yet manage to transcend their circumstances, develop esteem for themselves and others, and self-actualize.

So that clients and consultants are putting themselves in the best possible mental and emotional state to solve high- or low-stakes problems, they must come to terms with the emotions of fear and greed. While primitive, fear and greed are potent drivers that have relevance in our daily lives. Through the lens of Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, fear and greed are emotions that fall at the very bottom of the pyramid in the "physiological" and "safety" spaces. While the hierarchy of needs is a useful tool, it can give the impression that as people’s needs are met at one level, they move up to the next level, and the emotions at the lower level no longer activate behavior. In reality, human motivation is much more complex than this. There are many people whose basic needs for food, water, and shelter are met in overabundance. Yet, these people seem trapped on a treadmill, constantly chasing material things that far exceed their needs. On the other hand, there are people who live their lives deprived of basic needs yet manage to transcend their circumstances, develop esteem for themselves and others, and self-actualize. In other words, an individual’s growth relative to his or her needs is not necessarily linear. Equally important is that fact that people can dwell in multiple spaces simultaneously where their needs are concerned. This reality accounts for the fact that even when people hold positions of authority, are respected, and have their basic safety and physiological needs met, they can behave in ways that are driven by fear and greed. It is my experience that the vast majority of people are almost always experiencing at least ambient levels of fear and greed that influence their behavior. So sensitive are we to the precariousness of life that our primal and evolutionarily-encoded instincts to survive are almost always present at some level for most of us.

Fear is a defensive emotion that manifests as a fight, flight, or freeze response. Greed is an offensive emotion that shows up as active or passive aggression and consumption. When a problem presents itself, fear can be a driver of behavior when attempting to solve the problem as a means to mitigate perceived harm to oneself. Even if it is not at top of their minds, people can understandably be concerned with how they will be viewed in solving problems and can, thus, attempt to minimize the cost associated with a solution though shortcuts (i.e., low- or zero-cost solutions) or avoiding solving problems by seeking absolution. When greed enters the picture, people are often willing to accept excessive costs at others' expense for personal gain, especially if they have tacit or explicit approval from their superiors. These fear- and greed-based behaviors, in my observation and experience, almost never result in a sustainable and effective solution to a presented problem.

Write it Out

The good news is that feelings of fear and greed are universal to the experience of normally functioning humans. But what can set you apart from most other humans is your willingness to call out the fear and greed that are potentially clouding your judgment or willingness to take reasonable and practical action.

With this in mind, how can we reckon with our primeval emotions of fear and greed in order to put ourselves in a mental state wherein we can both accept and solve problems effectively? The reality is that fear and greed are not maladies of character; most normally functioning humans experience fear and greed and do so to a degree that is often higher than we are consciously aware of. Although it may seem on its face to be counterintuitive, coping with fear and greed in problem-solving is about bringing the emotions to the fore and not suppressing them. The objective is not to vanquish fear and greed but to expose them so they can be fully seen and observed. Only when fear and greed are fully exposed can they be fully dealt with. Not accepting that fear and greed can drive our behavior further obscures their effect on us and can trick us into believing that we are not being influenced by the irrationality that fear and greed can inflict on us. A simple exercise described below can help surface suppressed or inviable fear and greed.

Email has been commonplace ever since I began my professional career. Most people have experienced getting an email that seemed rude or curt and then shooting off a feisty reply, only to unnecessarily escalate the situation. I know I have certainly been guilty of such digital transgressions. At one job, my emails became particularly inflammatory. A mentor suggested that before replying to an email, I should write out my thoughts and feelings, then wait 24 hours to reevaluate what I had written. At first, it was difficult to wait the 24 hours, but I very quickly realized that when I took the time to write out my thoughts and emotions, they became less ambiguous to me. Upon revisiting them a day later, it was almost as if I was viewing them through another person’s eyes. By doing this exercise, I was able to gain clarity on my thoughts and feelings and, the more concrete they became, the easier it was to let them go. This exercise can be applied to many situations where it is helpful to surface thoughts and feelings in the service of being able to put some distance between yourself and certain unproductive thoughts and feelings. As you prepare to enter a solution space for a problem, take some time alone and in silence, with as few distractions as possible, to reflect on the problem by answering some questions. The following questions are a good starting point, but this list is by no means exhaustive:

  1. Why do I think there is a problem?
  2. What do I think the origins of the problem are?
  3. How have I contributed to the problem?
  4. How do I think others are contributing to the problem? 
  5. How would my life change if the problem went away?
  6. What would happen to me if the problem remained?
  7. What is at stake for me, personally, in solving the problem?
  8. What costs am I personally willing to accept for the problem to be solved?
  9. What costs am I not personally willing to accept for the problem to be solved?
  10. What costs am I willing to impose on others and why?
  11. What costs am I not willing to impose on others and why?
  12. How much effort am I willing to exert to solve the problem?
  13. How have I reacted emotionally to solutions that others have already proposed?
  14. Will my reputation among my superiors improve if I solve the problem?
  15. Will my reputation be damaged among my superiors if the problem persists?
  16. Will my career be advanced by solving the problem?
  17. Will my career by stalled if the problem persists?

It is critical in answering these questions that you are prepared to be brutally honest with yourself. Answer the questions as if no one else in the world will ever see your responses (they do not have to) and be prepared to feel some discomfort as you are vulnerable with yourself in exposing your deep motivations driven by fear and greed. The good news is that feelings of fear and greed are universal to the experience of normally functioning humans. But what can set you apart from most other humans is your willingness to call out the fear and greed that are potentially clouding your judgment or willingness to take reasonable and practical action. After you have answered these questions, put them aside for a day and then revisit them. As you reread your answers, be prepared to make changes as perhaps things have become clearer to you upon reflection. If you have made significant changes to your answers and feel that you are getting closer to exposing your fear and greed fully, take another day to let the revised answers settle in and then revisit them again. A good sign that this exercise is having a meaningful impact on you is the level of uneasiness or embarrassment you feel at your answers. As we peel back the layers of our motivations, we often find things that are ugly to us—things that are easy for us to spot in others but that we assume are not present in ourselves. Fear and greed are base human motivations are primal evolutionarily adaptations that came about for our survival. Against the backdrop of our sophisticated modern world, these thoughts and feelings appear unseemly and grotesque. Once you have cycled through the exercise one, two, or even three times, you put yourself in the sweet spot of readiness for change in which you are neither held back by fear from incurring the cost of solving the problem nor blinded by greed and willing to impose excessive costs on others for personal gain.

Closing Thoughts

Instead of being driven to and fro by primitive instincts, self-awareness of your fear and greed allows you to approach problems with a willingness to solve them in ways that both accept the costs involved and with the wisdom to weigh those costs against the overall benefit or risk for all stakeholders.

It has often been said that the people who function most effectively in life can do so because of their high degree of self-awareness. Self-awareness is not just about being in tune with how you feel and what you think in response to others, but also how your actions impact people one, two, and three degrees away from you. Developing self-awareness is indeed a journey and not a destination; it takes persistent observation of self and others and a willingness to be vulnerable inside and out. However, the payoff is enormous. Instead of being driven to and fro by primitive instincts, self-awareness of your fear and greed allows you to approach problems with a willingness to solve them in ways that both accept the costs involved and with the wisdom to weigh those costs against the overall benefit or risk for all stakeholders. Just as my in-laws were willing to be proactive to reduce their risk of fatality or injury from a deadly hurricane, we can prepare ourselves to productively cope with the subtle but still damaging mental hurricanes of fear and greed as we seek to effectively solve problems and continually improve the workplace, thereby advancing the human condition therein.