How Fear Gets in the Way of Strategy

by Growth Strategy Consultant Sai Patil

Even for companies that operate well, strategy can be a nebulous concept that fails to land or be implemented. While executives and mid-level managers may maintain long lists of initiatives and priorities that are all deemed “critical,” some employees may end up focusing only on time-urgent items, finding it difficult to juggle the rest with everyday responsibilities. Hence, the “important but not urgent” bucket frequently gets neglected.

One of the most common hurdles to well-meaning organizations solidifying strategy around choice is fear. Some types of fear are expected, including fear of change or uncertainty – akin to the fear you feel at the start of a roller coaster: You’re nervous but have some certainty everything will work out okay. In an organizational setting, one overcomes the fear of change by focusing on a clearly outlined roadmap. On the other hand, there are four other types of fear we have witnessed hindering organizational strategy. Addressing these is the key to unlocking your strategic potential.

Four fears that prevent positive strategic outcomes:

Fear #1: Being afraid to lead

Let’s be honest, when choiceful strategy fails, leaders frequently take the blame. C-suite executives and other strategy stakeholders may be tempted to hold back on change to avoid becoming a scapegoat. Being afraid to make a wrong move around a consensus deficit can paralyze decisionmakers. Leaders favor consensus in situations where there are clearly opposing viewpoints. Waiting too long for board members or executives to agree on the best goals or path forward can hinder good strategy, especially when they have diverse interests – and we recommend a clear “Disagree and Commit” culture to overcome

Sound familiar? Try this:

If you’re a leader, schedule a meeting with stakeholders and make your final decision clear to them. Use this time to hear opposing viewpoints and discuss facts. If it’s a contentious decision, share the thought process through which you landed on the decision. Allow time for input. Then make a call and ask all to commit! Allowing for group discussion and vocalizing of your own rationale can take away the fear of making a “wrong move” or deciding against someone’s interests.

Fear #2: Being afraid to speak up

Even the most extroverted can hesitate to share our perspectives during a strategy discussion, especially if we hold an opposing or minority view. And it’s not surprising. Many of us have witnessed others face consequences when they do speak up. Power dynamics, hierarchies, and egos are all present, especially among companies where top-down management thrives, and consensus-building…not so much. The problem when we don’t speak up (or are discouraged from speaking up) is that organizations don’t get the full range of thinking or ideas that can strengthen strategic outcomes.

Sound familiar? Try this:

If you are a leader, think about whom you hear from the most and whom you hear from the least. Reach out to those who speak up less often to see what might be stopping them. Encourage moments in decision-making meetings where everyone tries to think of opposing points of view — the “devil’s advocate moment.” Be wary of content that seems like it has been filtered before reaching you or seems to have the exact words and ideas you have used.

Fear #3: Being afraid to share data

Data gatekeepers can be tightfisted, often with good reason. Data management comes with a slew of security, privacy, and regulatory considerations. In short, the wrong data in the wrong hands can expose the data-keeper; further, it might steal the gatekeeper’s thunder if they are the source of insight and analytics. But timely data is crucial to both laying out a good strategic foundation and paving the way for its success.

Sound familiar? Try this:

As a leader, reassure data gatekeepers that the request for data is legitimate and timely and make it clear where early estimates are OK. It’s also helpful to bring them into the conversation about what data is needed, so they can better understand the thinking and desired outcomes. This gives the opportunity for them to offer their insights on how to best to structure the data to answer a specific question, as opposed to having a purely transactional exchange (“Please send XYZ to Diana”). Elevating your data gatekeeper’s role and reassurance from leadership will go a long way.

Fear #4: Being afraid to let go of control

Micromanagers, this one is for you! Strategy is never a one-person force. It takes teams to identify areas for strategic growth, the most efficient and cost-effective path to get there, and the hard work and smarts to realize the identified intent. And while it may be tempting to over-oversee the moving parts of a strategy, doing so can sink morale, lower productivity, and stymy progress.

Sound familiar? Try this:

As a leader, avoid attending every meeting or update. It’s tempting to participate in every meeting and milestone, but a leader’s presence can change creative and innovative strategic thinking, tilting toward the leader’s preference or viewpoint. Assuming you’ve hired the right people and set clear expectations, make sure you have strong communication practices with your team so you can keep a pulse on milestones and deadlines. Encourage fact-gathering and discussion instead of simple brainstorming or opinion wars.

Whenever we kickoff a strategy project, I find leaders are focused on the inputs and outputs. What data do you need to get started? When will we meet? What are the deliverables? While all of those are important, equally important is the environment in which we are operating. If there is too much fear in the people we depend on, then our strategy will suffer. Just as a seed needs fertile soil to grow, solid strategy needs an organization free from these fears before it can truly blossom.

Article Author

SAI PATIL is a results-oriented independent growth strategy and analytics consultant with 15+ years of experience as a consultant and industry professional. A former Bain Case Team Leader who bridges high-impact, execution-oriented strategy with strong organizational EQ, she brings deep experience in multi-year growth strategy, including consumer and customer strategy, sales and marketing optimization, adjacency evaluation, competitive landscape, and pricing. Her primary industry focus includes consumer goods, retail, and healthcare, and she has expertise in translating insights for action while understanding the business from a client’s perspective. Sai’s most recent work has centered on consumer-driven industries dramatically affected by the pandemic: fashion apparel, medical apparel, accessories, home decor, home improvement, veterinary care, fitness, home-delivered meals, and restaurants.