Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark

I chided my eleven-year-old son last week on his insistence that the lights in his room be left on at bedtime (ever since seeing the “Ghostbusters” remake this summer.) “Nothing’s going to get you,” I teased him. “Don’t be afraid of the dark.”

“I’m not afraid of the dark … but leave it on anyway.” he urged me.

I will say his twin sister has no problem sleeping in pitch black so it’s obviously got nothing to do with nurture!

Kidding aside, being afraid of the “dark” or the unknown is not just an issue kids grapple with.  When I eschewed a highly-paid respectable career to pursue my dream of starting a consultancy a few years back, I was treated to a virtual smorgasbord of other people’s fears. Friends and strangers helpfully volunteered:

“I would never be able to start my own business. The stress would kill me.”

“Can’t believe you did that. What happens if everybody hates you and money runs out?”

“The problem with me is that I like to see way out into the horizon. You can’t see 2 feet in front of your face in your situation.”

“I would hate to have to scale down my lifestyle at this point.”

And on.

And on.

A lot of people know where they want to go or what they ultimately want to do but are put off by the ambiguous zone in-between their current and future states.  It’s a scary place because we don’t know what’s going to happen on the way. Because it’s dark.

So the question becomes, “How do we navigate this dark zone between where we are and where we want to be?” The answer? “Leave the lights on!”

We need to expose the issues to daylight before we decide they are indeed too big and hairy to contend with.

There are four strategies for assessing the boogeymen that reside in our psyches:

1.      Conduct triage-  I once worked on an improvement project for a large medical provider. Part of the issue was the crazy wait time in their urgent care unit. They were set up with 3 triage areas to process incoming patients. However, the triage process varied greatly depending on the provider manning the desk! The triage wasn’t working as it should. Ask yourself, is what I’m worried about really going to bring ruin to my career or family? Will it potentially cause some short term pain but worth the upside? Or maybe nobody will mock me at all? Are the risks less likely to occur than the benefits are to manifest?

2.      Ask “What’s really the worst that can happen?”– I used to hate giving presentations. But I realized (eventually) that while the audience might indeed disagree everything I had to say, if I provoked thought it was a success. The worst that would happen is a question would be asked that I didn’t know the answer to or that they were bored silly. That’s it. The human mind is second to none in its creativity. What are the specific disasters your brain has concocted for you? Take those, figure out the probability and seriousness of each, and plan preventive actions for the hairiest ones. For extra credit, plan a contingent action for the one you are most worried about in case your mitigating plan falls flat.

3.      Recognize the horizon problem–  I’ve always loved the ocean, having grown up not far from the beaches of South Carolina. As a kid, I always marveled at how far I thought I could see into the vastness of the sea. I later learned the average adult standing at sea level looking at the ocean horizon can only see 3 miles before the curvature of the earth interferes with seeing further.  Thus, the horizon problem: you can only see so far.  Those that take risks in life are faced with low visibility- that’s just part of the deal. But just because you can’t see very far out doesn’t mean there aren’t good things just around the bend. It’s just that you don’t see them yet.

4.      Resist natural inclinations– I had a person who once worked for me admit a during a performance review: “When I get scared, I get very defensive and I WILL lash out.” What’s your tendency when faced with adversity or darkness? Realize that most issues are merely actions to be properly categorized. They are usually:

a.      A problem that just needs to be solved

b.      A decision that just needs to be made

c.      An implementation that needs to be carried out

d.      Priorities that should be clarified and managed

The list above offers personal examples of how to make needed change happen. Your examples will differ but the fundamental questions are the same:

What are you afraid of in the dark?

Is it really there?

That being said, my eleven year-old still keeps the light on.

3 Surprising Things About Change

“What’s the use of having all these good ideas if we can’t do them?”– Exasperated Executive.


Some people can get their way by fiat: do this or else. CEOs can sell off divisions, hire people, fire people, send them to Siberia, etc. Politicians and judges legislate the changes they want and send resistors to jail if they don’t comply. The rest of us don’t have these tools and have to get a lot more creative to get others to enact change. Many organizational experts prescribe the answers to change management through complex performance system charts and tertiary personality diagrams that probably make sense on an academic level but not in the trenches.

Does it really have to be this hard and expensive?

In the terrific best-selling book titled Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard, the authors describe a practical framework birthed after decades of scientific research that is simple enough to remember. They rightfully acknowledge that this framework isn’t an all-encompassing panacea. However, they provide many real life examples of how using these principles resulted in getting buy-in.  And somewhere along the way, they discovered three surprises about us.

What looks like resistance is usually a result of a lack of clarity.

How many of us have vowed to “eat healthier” or make more money? Despite our internal willingness, how easy is this over the long term? For most, not very. Instead, we are urged to break the goal into doable action items: get Greek yogurt instead of ice cream, aim to hit your best demonstrated OEE for the year for an entire week straight, spend 1 hour per week more on the more profitable accounts and less time on generating new ones, etc. Identify performances that have been achieved in the past and challenge them to repeat it. Then, ramp up to a higher frequency.

What looks like laziness is often exhaustion.

Find the motivating pressure points. Sometimes, all it takes is a physical prop like a picture of a goal or a running meter that shows how much money the group is losing per hour. Other times, the folks are just trying to do too much at once. Researchers have found that self-control is an exhaustible resource, just like your muscles after doing 20 squats at the gym. So when the emotional part of the brain gets tired and starts thinking things like “it’s too hard, we’re no good at this”, the analytical part of the brain doesn’t have the strength to yank on the reins and keep pushing through the change. When people exhaust their self-control what they are really exhausting is their ability to push forward in the face of frustration. It’s your job as the change agent to recognize this and keep the muscles fresh.

What looks like a people problem is more times than not a situational problem.

Some people are just lazy and you need to get rid of them; let them go work in an environment that suits laziness. If it’s a people issue, then it obviously has to be addressed. Below is a three step process the president of an international manufacturer always follows when dealing with a people issue:

  1. Should the person be on the bus? If NO – end discussion and deal with the root cause. If YES then move to 2.
  2. What seat are they in? Why isn’t it working? Skills mismatch, training, etc? Peter principle?
  3. What seat SHOULD they be in? Let’s adjust.

The rest of us really do want to do a great job and excel. But there are situational factors that can get in the way of thinking clearly or staying disciplined when implementing change. One way to eliminate these factors is to tweak the environment. Is the regular office so busy and filled with constant interruptions that the team can’t focus for even short periods? Is the corporate culture in direct odds with the goal? Does your spouse really want to get his blood pressure down but you notice he will eat an entire large pizza if he can sit in front of the tv while doing so? While you are at it, take a look at how your reward people: Does the top selling sales person win a one on one dinner with the CEO? (Would he consider that a punishment?) What can be tweaked in what you are doing now to make implementation easier?


Simply put, change has to do with creating a downhill slope and giving the people a push. John Wooden once said, “When you improve a little each day, eventually big things occur… Don’t look for the quick, big improvement. Seek the small improvement one day at a time.”

That’s the only way it happens- and when it happens, it lasts.