In business, unknowns are a fact of life. We are frequently confronted with ambiguous choices and problems to solve. Some decisions are made quickly – without much thought – relying on mental shortcuts and experience to guide us. When the stakes are higher, options are unfamiliar, and outcomes less predictable, fear makes us more hesitant to act.
In the last several years, I have noticed more project delays, more clients ghosting, and more uncertainty than ever before. This behavior is probably amplified by the massive changes of a global pandemic, but it predates that.
Are businesses more hesitant than ever? And what can be done to help them move forward?
Listen for clues
Listening to a podcast recently, the host presented some questions businesses are likely asking when faced with uncertainty. Later, it occurred to me that the questions are equally applicable to a spouse, friend, client, or colleague in a similar situation.
- Timing – Do we need to do this now?
- Opportunity – Is the money/time better spent elsewhere?
- Risk – How confident am I that we’ll get the desired outcome?
- ROI – Is it worth the cost?
- Complexity – How can we even do this? This is hard in the best of times, and it’s harder now.
To help others who fear making a mistake, or are just feeling stuck, you need to practice deep, active listening.
- I understand you’re concerned about [ fill in the blank ], is anything else going on?
- Would it be helpful if I was able to [ fill in the blank ]?”
It’s tempting to offer solutions or guidance. First, listen to understand what is driving these emotions, and what may motivate behavior change.
Take a step back
How do you get people to say yes to a new idea or innovation? In The Human Element, authors Loren Nordgren and David Schonthal point out that we often get in our own way.
Most marketers, executives, or others working to create change, instinctively believe that if we add enough value, people will get on board. This leads to pushing more features, benefits, or arguments to generate demand. The authors refer to this set of strategies and tactics as “Fuel.”
However, by focusing efforts on Fuel, we often neglect the Frictions that work against the desired behavior. Frictions are the psychological forces that undermine change, creating uncertainty and opposition. Taking a step back – to identify and understand these Frictions – is often the key to achieving our goals.
Making decisions is emotional
Uncertainty is uncomfortable – and the future is inherently uncertain. Human beings seek information about the future because our brains perceive ambiguity as a threat.
Emotions play a significant role in decision-making. When feeling uncomfortable or threatened, decisions are driven by self-preservation. What you may perceive as hesitation or reluctance from a client or colleague, might actually represent a need for assurance.
At different points in the decision-making process, different strategies are needed to be helpful.
Early on, people are often excited by the open-ended possibility of change, or undertaking a new initiative. So much so that they overweight the positives. Imagine the feeling of a first date going really well, or sitting at the wheel in the new car showroom. You want to meet that feeling with excitement and inspiration to move forward.
Later in the process, people start to feel nervous. Call it cold feet, or buyer’s remorse, as they begin to overweight the negatives. In this situation, you need to meet the emotion with reassurance and empathy around their concerns.
One small step
When someone is hesitant to act, it’s a good bet that they are feeling overwhelmed. Options can feel endless and equally plausible. Faced with the fear of making a mistake, it feels safer to take no action at all.
Your job is not to convince anyone of anything. If you’re a trusted listener and advisor, you can help people break down a large problem into a smaller first step. After hearing and confirming their primary objection, consider asking: “If I could help you with this one thing, would that feel like progress?”
If you engage in more meaningful conversations, you can lift a person’s gaze – from looking at their feet to looking at the horizon. And then you can start to move forward together.
For more thoughts on decision-making, read Overcoming Fear.
Dan Woychick is a problem solver, creative collaborator, and owner of Woychick Design. He helps purpose-driven organizations raise awareness, inspire donors, and move people to action. Connect here: Instagram | LinkedIn | Twitter