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Indecision and Fear

Most of us have experienced a moment when we needed to make a decision, but instead, just gave in and went with the flow.  Or, instead of giving in we did nothing. For example, a client of mine allowed a salesperson to stay for an entire year despite never having made a single sale. Finally, after a year, she bit the bullet and terminated the employee. It had cost a great deal of money and opportunity as well as denying the employee the chance to find a job for which she was better suited.

We, you and I, do this in every imaginable setting. We accede to a lower prices in negotiations or pay too much for something because haggling seems rude. We eat cold dinners or tip servers who forget about us because it might cause a scene!

It’s even pervasive in medical care. Patients fail to make strong decisions because they think the doctor will disapprove or they’re worried about some unknown medical secret that will hurt them later. Even affluent, highly learned people are cowed by their fear of angry docs.  “… [they feel] compelled to conform to socially sanctioned roles and defer to physicians during clinical consultations”.

All these cases result from one fundamental misstep, allowing fear to dictate our actions instead of making a reasoned decision. The resulting Indecision is an epidemic.

Most of us have heard of “analysis paralysis”, the indecisiveness that arises from too much thinking and data. This is adjacent but different. Instead of analysis paralysis, this is fear-induced paralysis. out-of-orderbrain

Although common, the name for the phenomenon is obscure, little-used and conjures a sort of pop-culture sensibility.  But it’s a real condition and in its most pathological form can make it impossible for people to lead normal lives as sufferers confront abject fear over what to wear in the morning or whether to throw away a single piece of paper. The name for the condition is decidephobia, described in the 1970s by Walter Kaufmann of Princeton University.

Most of us are not decidephobes. Still, we allow fear to delay or hinder our decision-making in certain situations. Think of the sales rep who comes to his boss to ask if he can reduce the price for a resistant buyer. I have seen this happen with my clients. In one case a founder client was getting pressure from investors to increase revenue and add clients. A prospect was demanding a free pilot and extended month-to-month arrangement. The pilot would still require the work and cost of getting the client launched on the service. And a month to month contract, with no guaranteed tenure could mean significant losses. My client was leaning toward capitulating in the face of a struggling pipeline. That would mean real costs. Let me repeat – they would be agreeing to LOSING money on a deal. Why?

When we played out the imagined scenario of saying no and making a real decision, we found a weird phenomenon. In his imagination, the client imagined only a binary future. Either give-in to this unreasonable deal and keep the client (albeit, unprofitably) or the client walks away without buying. Let’s look at the option where he accedes to their demands. It sounds ok. At least he got the deal. That is surely better than getting a NO. But really, the choice isn’t binary. A prospect that starts by insisting on a bad deal can go many ways. Yes, they may walk away and slam the door if they don’t get what they want. Then what? Well, now there is certainty and a chance to move on to new prospects. So many times I see clients and peers hang on to the hope of a deal because they feel they have invested too much time and energy to cut bait. Wrong! That is simply the sunk cost fallacy at work, and it leads to throwing good time (money) after bad. So, say no. Maybe they walk or maybe negotiation leads to a different understanding. Both eventualities are an improvement over endless hoping or capitulating.

There are other ways it could go. Maybe they go with a competitor and come back later. But for sure, making no decision will be worse than exerting the courage to make a real decision. Saving a bad deal doesn’t make it a good deal. It’s a loser and will cost money to maintain. It will be hard to change the price later. They will blab to their peers and others will expect that bargain too. The fear of rejection that stops you now will come home to roost on the balance sheet. No real upside.

Indecisiveness that grows out of fear has long legs. Whether the fear of a lost deal, worry about questioning the expertise of a doctor or the (especially weird) fear of being disliked by our awful server, we pay for it later. The fear makes it tough to view multiple scenarios as outcomes. We forget about our strategy and its goals and instead focus on avoiding what feels like the finality of a decision. We imagine terrible repercussions for being wrong when in fact, being wrong in one decision is not terminal. There are an infinite number of next decisions that could be right. Yet we operate like making the wrong decision is worse than making no decision.

Indecision is not a function of weighing different choices or being genuinely uncertain about what the desired outcome is or which choice would come closest to delivering that outcome. It is fear-based. The most curious part of this is how ill-defined that fear is. As soon as we begin to interrogate our own emotion, it’s clear that the indecision is a sort of placeholder in lieu of confronting uncertainty and risk. But risk has potential and known upsides, while indecision has only downsides. Still, uncertainty causes real discomfort, so we replace it with indecision and inaction.

As for my client with the demanding prospect who wanted a free pilot and a month to month contract? When we really played out the full scenario lots of things became clear. The fear loomed larger than warranted. Yes, the prospect would no longer be a prospect if he walked away. But he wasn’t a client now and likely wouldn’t become one – and if he did, it would be a money-loser. By making the decision the founder gained freedom from the time-suck of indecision and from the hope that was tantalizing but fruitless. Finally, he gained the opportunity to find another prospect or ten—prospects that would understand the value of the product and be willing to pay full price.

Ah, the relief of decisiveness!


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