Why Avoidance — The Natural Order of Things?

In my last post, The Ice Beneath the Waves, I explored the fact that once an employee sues, the cost to the employer often represents only the tip of the iceberg; the greater cost occurred prior to the claim. In this post, I explore what I consider the primary source of this cost—a natural, intuitive, and self-protective instinct…that happens to be wrong.

What May Have Worked for the Caveman Doesn’t for the Manager

We’ve inherited a natural, intuitive, and seemingly self-protective instinct. It’s to avoid encounters where the outcome is uncertain and potentially harmful.

If your distant ancestor heard a rustle outside his cave and asked himself, “Woolly mammoth or saber-toothed tiger?” would you prefer an optimist or a pessimist? Chances are, you’d prefer a pessimist—one unwilling to venture outside the cave unless sure of a positive outcome. “Better to miss a meal,” you’d want him to think, “than be a meal.”

What’s the difference between that world and today’s workplace? In the latter, the protective instinct to avoid increases the danger. What you fear is not outside the cave, it’s right next to you.

Unlike the saber-toothed tiger, a problematic employee almost never goes away on its own. If avoided, the problem gets worse; the likelihood and magnitude of a bad outcome increases.

Teach Your Managers How To Ski

After growing up in Indiana, I moved to Salt Lake City and joined a law firm with several lawyers who were serious skiers. They said, “You seem reasonably athletic. You’ll catch on. Come with us.”

They took me to a nearby ski resort. Bypassing the beginner “bunny hill,” they took me up an aerial tram to the top of a mountain—3,000 vertical feet above the base.

“Down you go,” they said. And down I went. And down…And down…

Fortunately, I managed to survive and eventually learned how to ski.

Years later, I had an epiphany on the ski slope. It struck me that there’s an exact parallel between skiers and managers, with beginning skiers like bad ones, and advanced skiers like good ones.

For a beginning skier, the first few days on the slopes are seldom much fun. Wearing alien garb, locked into slatted boards, you’re told to ski down a hill (encouragingly called the fall line). Worried about going too fast and crashing, a natural, intuitive, and seemingly self-protective instinct kicks in. It says “downhill momentum equals danger. Counterbalance it with uphill momentum.” So you lean back on your skis, getting your body closer to the ground behind you and apparent safety. But what happens next? The very thing you fear—you go too fast, careen out of control, and crash.

What should you do instead? The exact opposite of what your instinct tells you to do! Get your weight forward on your skis, toward the danger, in the direction that causes you anxiety. Training yourself to do the opposite of a natural, seemingly protective instinct ends up protecting you—enabling you to control speed and direction and ski safely and enjoyably.

It’s the same way in management. That festering employee problem is your “fall” line. Leaning away from it through avoidance or delay or moving it to the bottom or off the agenda, only makes the problem worse.

Instead, treat the avoidance instinct as a cue to do the opposite—to move that problematic issue to the top of your agenda and confront it directly, as I suggest managers do when communicating with problem employees in a previous blog post, When Workplace Relationships End. That’s weight forward on skis management.

In my next post, “Compliance Cop to Compliance Coach”, I’ll explore how the human resources department can help managers overcome their avoidance instinct, which will help not only with compliance and claim prevention, but with performance, accountability, and employee engagement.


DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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