“What if…” vs. “Why not?”: The Fear vs. Creativity Conundrum

Frightened turtle

There is a major divide occurring in many businesses today.  The battle lines are drawn between the overly cautious risk avoiders and the equally overly optimistic creative visionaries.   The first group solemnly cautions, “What if…?” while the second group trumpets, “Why not?”

Understanding where your company falls between these two groups is essential for success in today’s constantly changing market and workplace.

On the one side, risk management is commonly and wisely accepted as a critical part of effective strategic management.  To understand the changes that could alter the environment, assumptions, processes, workflow, customers, etc. requires the creation of hypothetical situations that answer, “What if…?”

Paradoxically, another highly recommended business strategy is to boldly explore, innovate, and leap into new markets and product lines.  To identify and challenge the outdated assumptions in order to release such “outside the box” thinking requires answering the question, “Why not?”

But can these two vastly different approaches co-exist – or could the “what if” scenarios of risk management go too far?  In other words, are our fears of what might happen in the future destroying our creative spirit today?

Corporations are nothing more than financial and legal entities – they do not exist without their human workers.  Balancing the “why not” of creativity with the “what if” of risk management essentially requires an understanding of the true nature of what it means to be a human at work.  The balance between the two is the degree of fear (expressed or unexpressed) in the workplace.

How Fear Impacts the Workplace

Throughout modern business, we have been encouraged to leave our emotions at the doors of our offices.  In particular, the very real human emotion of fear has generally been avoided in business.  To be effective business leaders, we are advised to ignore our emotions and move forward solely on logic and reason.

Our gut instincts must be thoroughly tested and analyzed prior to using them to solve problems or develop strategy.  If our instincts aren’t supported by irrefutable facts, then they are often ignored.  After all, logic and reason are the sole means to avoid fearful circumstances and outcomes.

The psychology of being human, however, inherently includes emotions, feelings, values, perspectives, flashes of insight, creativity, and fear.  To attempt to ignore these powerful forces is (ironically) illogical.

But, even though fear is pervasive, no one likes to admit feeling it.  We’re advised to keep a “stiff upper lip” or “suck it up” in order to do what is necessary.  In addition, we human beings have a natural instinct to avoid situations that trigger our fears – whether real or imagined.

Despite the ubiquitous reality of fear, our reactions to fear vary widely.  Depending on our experience and perceptions,

  • We can choose to blindly ignore our fears by staunchly insisting that “nothing’s wrong.”  This can be seen when we fail to conduct thorough due diligence prior to making a decision.  In change initiatives, we label employees who question the changes as “change resistors” (which usually indicates that they are the “wrong people on the bus” and need to be replaced).
  • We can hedge the potential negative outcomes that we fear by engaging in extensive, protracted analysis.  Although it’s important to analyze both the internal and external factors that can potentially thwart our goals, “paralysis by analysis” can stymie an organization’s ability to quickly adapt to a constantly changing environment.
  • We can (consciously or unconsciously) exaggerate our fears into insurmountable obstacles.  Because we view the potential negative outcomes as so terrifying, we try to assuage our fears by rationalizing that we can never overcome them…that it doesn’t matter how hard we try…that it’s “inevitable” that our efforts will fail…so we quit without even trying.
  • We can act boldly at first,…but then second guess our decisions.  Inevitably, this leads to inefficient and ineffective processes due to the constant need to stop what we’re doing in order to replace it with something that we think might make the feared outcomes less likely.

No matter how the fear is perceived or expressed, its inevitable result is the loss of creativity and the courage to try something new.

Puleo’s Pointers:  Balancing the “What If’s” and the “Why Not’s”

Because “what if…” questions are fear-based, they tend to focus primarily on the potential bad things that can happen.  In sharp contrast, the “why not…” questions are inherently visionary and tend to evoke more boundless, blue ocean thinking.

It is not, however, a question of whether “what if…” is better or worse than “why not…”  However, it is a question of the balance between these two very different thought processes.

Fear stifles creativity, yet both fear and creativity are universal human experiences.  Due to this age of constant, unrelenting change, fears must be faced so that creativity can blossom.  The inability to innovate and adapt can be a death knell.

The telltale sign of fear is any iteration of “What if…?”  So, any time that you find yourself asking some variation of a “What if…” question, shift your focus to answer these four questions instead:

  1. What am I assuming will happen?  By giving your fear a name, you now have a target upon which to focus.
  2. Why is this potential outcome so frightening to me?  Am I afraid of losing something?  Am I afraid that I won’t be able to change?  Am I afraid of what other people will say?  The trick is to be specific BUT non-judgmental.  Just like the monster under your childhood bed, fears tend to subside once you clearly look at them.  Accept that the fear exists, then choose to move through it.
  3. What have I been putting off doing because of this fear?  One of fear’s greatest allies is procrastination – which is a form of self-sabotage that can create a self-fulfilling prophecy.
  4. What’s the worst that could happen?  Once you have confronted your fear, you can begin to take the steps to move through it.  Nearly all fears are exaggerations of projected outcomes.  In other words, the reality is much less frightening than the potentiality.  (Remember:  There never was a monster under your childhood bed.)

The process of overcoming fear is a cathartic tool that helps you to harness not only your natural creativity, but also your insights into the real potential outcomes of an action.  Why not start now?

Dr. Geri Puleo, SPHR, is the President and CEO of Change Management Solutions, Inc., an eLearning and Coaching company focused on eradicating workplace burnout through the B-DOC Model.  An entrepreneur for over 25 years, keynote speaker, author, blogger, business coach, university professor, and researcher, you can see her “in action” by watching her TEDx Talk on YouTube.  To contact Dr. Puleo, please go to www.gapuleo.com

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