Examine Your Fears Before Saying No, Part 2

Last week we looked at how suffering from the paralysis of fear isn’t a valid business plan. Let’s look this week at how we differentiate the foolish from the wise changes.

How Fear Impacts Making Changes
The challenge of evaluating a new idea is that we often don’t get past the first step. Let’s take a specific example: Jeff is a funeral home owner. Jeff’s staff consists of himself, a cousin (licensed with 5 years of experience), and a new director who just completed her internship and received her license 6 months ago. Jeff oversees every service and double-checks everyone’s work. He has not taken a ‘real’ vacation for over 10 years (funeral association conventions don’t count). Jeff’s wife is very frustrated that he won’t take time off to go out of town on a vacation, and his children have even stopped asking him to go on vacation. Jeff wants to take a vacation. In fact, he is beginning to feel resentful about feeling tied to his work.

When Jeff thinks about taking a vacation, his mind immediately generates many examples of how things can go wrong. Perhaps the most prominent example is that a bereaved family would not receive good service and then they would tell their family, friends, and co-workers about their bad experience. In the end Jeff can just imagine how much future business he would lose.

These are legitimate fears. It is certainly possible that Jeff’s staff could drop the ball and provide a family with poor service. But, this is where most people stop. After imagining his phone never ringing again, Jeff stops evaluating the change. Jeff thinks, “Bad things could happen, so I can’t do it.” End of Story. By stopping immediately, Jeff will ensure that no changes will be made until the situation forces him to make the change (e.g., his wife asks him to go to couple’s counseling, his physician recommends it because of his high stress levels, etc.). The problem is that not making changes until you are forced to is often too late.

How fear setting* can help.
Fear setting is taking the next step and evaluating the costs of not making a change. For example, Jeff should also consider what problems will occur if he does NOT go on vacation. His family will continue to not have quality time with him, and it is reasonable to expect that his relationship with his wife and children will worsen. Furthermore, Jeff believes it is critical to double-check the work of his staff. If he is always there to do this, his staff will not develop the skills to be confident in their own work and to handle challenges that arise. Or put another way, training wheels are really helpful; but they are worthless if you never take them off.

Another critical part of fear setting is asking, “How realistic are your fears?” Jeff is worried that if he is not there to troubleshoot problems and double-check their work, his staff will never provide quality services to families. Is this realistic? Does Jeff often find gross errors in his staff’s work? (If so, that is a bigger and more immediately problem than his vacation).

It is also helpful to evaluate his other fear – if your staff makes a mistake how much would it hurt your future business? Let’s test this assumption: Has Jeff ever made a mistake? Of course he has. All funeral professionals make mistakes. Did the mistake result in a drastic reduction in future business? No, it didn’t. Outside of a huge mistakes (e.g., cremating the wrong body, mishandling of trust funds, etc.), most individual errors do not have a significant long-term negative impact on future business.

After these two processes, Jeff has a more accurate picture of the benefits and drawbacks of taking a long-term vacation.

This is where Jeff started. If I take a vacation:

  • My staff might mess up, and
  • I’ll likely lose a lot of future business.
  • Therefore, I can’t go.

After fear-setting he has a more realistic view of his fears and a better appreciation of the costs of not taking a vacation:

  • There is a chance my staff may mess up, but they don’t have many errors now so this isn’t likely. Furthermore, if they did make a mistake it is unlikely the error would have a significant impact on future business.

And if I do NOT take a vacation:

  • There is a good chance my relationship with my wife and children will worsen, and
  • It is virtually guaranteed that my staff will continue to rely on me to double-check their work and they will not learn how to think critically and make adjustments when necessary, and
  • My feelings of resentment for being “tied to work” will continue to grow. 

Fear setting is not a process of saying, “Ignore your fears.” This is not a Nike commercial that suggests you should “Just Do It.” Your fears are likely legitimate – although perhaps you may be overestimating how likely they are to happen and overvaluing the long-term effect they would have on your business. The magic of fear setting is it allows you to look more objectively at the big picture. It is easy to come up with the costs or problems that may arise if you make a change. What is much more difficult, but very important, is to take the next two steps and say, “How likely are my fears?” and “What is the cost of NOT making this change.”

I do not mean to suggest these are easy decisions; the big questions funeral professionals face are complicated. Question like: Should I change my standard work schedule? Should I add to my staff? Should I expand my services and offerings? Should I build or buy another rooftop? Should I sell? And I am not suggesting that change is always the correct answer. Sometimes the right answer is not to try something new because the potential drawbacks outweigh the potential gains of making the change. But I believe that stopping the process immediately after listing your fears is an incomplete analysis.

I hope the fear-setting framework provides you with a way to thoroughly consider all of the possible outcomes. I believe it will help you move past feeling stuck and reduce your overall stress.

*This description of fear-setting is based on how Tim Ferriss describes the concept. For a further discussion of fear setting, see his book: Tribe of Mentors.

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