The Perks of Paranoia: Why Fear Might Be Your Best Business Resource

By: Michael McQueen

Looking back over the last two years quickly reveals a narrative of fear. In all the frenzies of panic-buying, the conspiracy theories and the misinformation that fed our anxiety, we have consistently been driven to hysteria by a very primal sense of fear.

While this kind of fear has led to some unfortunate consequences, the reality of fear in general is that it is our greatest mechanism for safety and survival – it is designed to keep us alive. In fact, while confidence may be attractive, it is simply dangerous when it reaches the level of arrogance – consider the cars full of over-confident young men in situations that have so often led to disaster.

This principle applies as much to business as it does to life. A healthy sense of paranoia in business is a crucial mechanism for remaining relevant. More often than not, the businesses that crash the hardest are those that were so distracted by their own success that they failed to read the signs and take seriously how quickly the competition was catching up.

Despite its faults, Facebook’s recent big rebrand is consistent with the quality that has kept the company thriving from its beginning. When the company celebrated hitting 1 billion followers in 2012, a little red book started appearing on the desks of all its employees full of quotes that the company lived by. One of these quotes was, ‘If we don’t create the thing that kills Facebook, someone else will.’[1] Its decision to recently rebrand and re-strategise when many would say it is at the peak of its success reveals its commitment to this notion.

The truth is that if you have had any measure of success or notoriety, you’d do well to go into each and every day with an active awareness that you have a target painted on your back. You have competitors out there actively working to unseat your position of dominance or at least erode your market share. Furthermore, you have any number of unconventional competitors who may not even be on your radar right now but are waiting in the wings, ready to pounce. Facebook, or Meta, knows this and it is just this kind of healthy paranoia that keeps it ahead of the game, while its competitors struggle to keep up.

There is a long history of companies that seemed as if they were sitting comfortably at the top of their game, only to encounter a sudden and dramatic downfall as soon as the game shifted. Many might be tempted to say such downfalls came out of the blue, but the reality is that business that are not actively looking for the threat that might be coming are sure to miss it. While it may feel like a surprise, it is not surprising.

A case in point comes with the Swiss watchmaking giant Tissot. When smartwatches first started becoming mainstream in 2014, Francois Thiebaud, the head of Tissot, stated defiantly at a watch fair in Basel, ‘We’re not interested in launching a gadget watch. We like to focus on our core business instead of meandering.’ The heads of rival watchmakers Patek Philippe and La Montre Hermes also went on record to suggest that smartwatches did not represent a threat for their businesses.[2]

Tellingly, these statements were made at the very time Credit Suisse released a forecast estimating the wearable electronics market would reach $US50 billion by 2017. Fast forward to that very year, and the attitudes of the Swiss had changed significantly. Almost every major Swiss manufacturer, from Alpina to Mondaine, to Montblanc, has embraced wearable technology and has done so in a way that embraces the connected app-enabled technology of recent years without compromising on Swiss design quality, elegance or timelessness. Even Tissot has joined the smartwatch party with the release of their own range of timepieces to rival the Apple iWatch. This is certainly a dramatic about-face for a company that dismissed ‘gadget watches’ as strategic ‘meandering’ just a few years ago.[3]

It was a close call for Swiss watchmakers, but last-minute pivots brought them back in the game. For many successful companies, it is their success that blinds them. The reason for this is clear. Success tends to solidify our points of view and in many ways, this is natural. After all, if a set of assumptions and beliefs has led to triumph in the past, information or ideas outside this frame of reference will almost automatically be viewed with suspicion.

This is often the same mindset that prevents businesses embracing diversity, which is ironically the antidote to such complacency. Psychologist Irving Janis argues that the lack of diversity in a group insulates it from outside opinion and convinces members over time that the group’s judgement on important issues must be right. These kinds of groups, Janis suggests, share ‘an illusion of invulnerability and a willingness to rationalize away possible counter-arguments to the group’s position’. We have a tendency to hire and associate with people who look, act and think just like us, and there is nothing that produces a false sense of security more than this. The people who will best protect us from our own complacency are those that think differently from us.

For any company experiencing any level of success, it is vital to actively combat this lure of contentment and complacency with a sense of healthy paranoia. By all means, enjoy success and celebrate milestones — but always in moderation. Examining yourself and your accomplishments with sober judgement is the key to staying humble and hungry — recognising there is always a bigger mountain to climb, always more to learn and always the chance that what worked yesterday may not work tomorrow. Toyota’s mantra sums it up well: ‘Act like #1, think like #2’.

[1] England, L. 2015, ‘Here’s What’s Inside The Little Red Book That Is Placed On The Desk Of Every Facebook Employee’, Business Insider, 29 May.

[2] Koltrowitz, S. 2014, ‘Smart watches? Not at this time, say wary Swiss’, The Sydney Morning Herald, 31 March.

[3] Gretler, C. 2017, ‘Swatch Takes on Google, Apple With Watch Operating System’, Bloomberg, 17 March.

Article supplied with thanks to Michael McQueen.

About the Author: Michael is a trends forecaster, business strategist and award-winning conference speaker.

Feature image: Photo by Tim Trad on Unsplash

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