Why I Hate FUD – Fear, Uncertainty & Doubt

Occasionally, I feel that I’m a lot like Bugs Bunny. I have a very difficult relationship with FUD. The difference is, Bugs is dealing with a 2D Fudd, Elmer. I’m dealing with a 1D FUD – Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt, the go-to move of the lazy marketer, salesman, or project pitch-meister (lets’ call them FUDchuckers for the rest of this article).

Bugs has it easy. At least 2D Fudd has, if not depth, then a sense of perspective. 1D FUD has no perspective, but lays down a very clear line, which is easy to follow. If you do (or don’t do) X, then a range of bad things could happen. Often, the FUDchuckers base their pitch on reality – the worst-case scenario that might exist in a given set of circumstances. This is particularly true in cases where there is a Regulatory change or new product emerging about which there is limited information. FUDchuckers take the information vacuum and fill it with tales of woe and urban myth about what might be coming.

A Confession

I’ll admit, I have chucked my fair share of FUD in the past. As a program manager for Regulatory compliance in a change resistant organization, I tried to push the FUD button about Regulatory penalties for incorrect bills (€5k per error maximum penalty). I used analysis of historic errors and built the TALE OF DOOM™ presentation (insert sound effect here). Surely that would get me budget and backing. No Brainer! The logic was infallible, the data indisputable.

It didn’t work. In fact, it resulted in me getting less time to present the issue at steering meetings or to other stakeholder meetings. It resulted in my credibility being dented significantly. The reason was quite simple:

FUD is tied to our perception of risk, and humans don’t perceive or evaluate abstract risks very well.

I’ve written about this and taught about it in various forums over the years, but the very brief summary of humans and risk is this:

  • Our reaction to risk (the fight or flight response) evolved about 34 million years ago in a very primitive part of our brains
  • It evolved to deal with real physical threats, like sabre tooth tigers sitting right in front of us. Far away threats were not a problem. A sabre tooth tiger outside the cave over yonder wasn’t our problem, it was our neighbor’s.
  • Our abstract reasoning capability evolved later. That’s the bit that deals with numbers and concepts that are intangible. Like risks relating to data.
  • So, when presented with a real threat to organization survival, the abstract brain processes it and gets it, but the monkey brain doesn’t respond. So there is no reaction.

It is best summarized by Mel Brooks in his definition of the difference between comedy and tragedy:

“Comedy is someone else falling in a manhole. Tragedy is me falling in a manhole.”

The Science and the Change

What actually happens is that we engage in classic gambling behavior as two different decision making processes in our brains don’t mesh together to drive action. Daniel Kahneman describes this in detail in his book Thinking Fast and Slow.

What I experienced in the phone company was a behavior I call ‘irrational discounting’ where stakeholders started to push back against the FUD and worst case scenario using rational arguments like: “What is the probability of that worst case occurring?” or “Has anyone actually been hit with that penalty yet?” or “But we’re different than [insert name of large peer organization], that approach won’t work here”. Because there was no ‘gut feeling’ engagement with the issue, the Guiding Coalition I was relying on to push the required change effectively tried to rationalize why they weren’t getting that gut feeling and downplay the reality of the risks because they couldn’t move the abstract concept to a real issue.

The Sabre Tooth tiger wasn’t walking any closer.

In his leading work on Change Management, Kotter tells us that we need to create a dissatisfaction with the status quo to trigger a desire for change. FUDchucking is one approach and it might get things started. But sustaining the change can be harder. Also, if you push the FUD button too hard and too often, you can generate too much Fear, which actually serves to trigger the Fight or Flight response in the Monkey brain.

Fred Mercury sang that “too much love will kill you, every time”. And too much Fear will kill motivation to change every time as well, because people will feel that they are damned if they do and damned if they don’t. So, why waste their efforts trying to solve an insoluble problem? Let’s just buy a new Cloud platform instead.

And if the FUD that you chuck does not come to pass, you will experience diminishing returns on responses to later FUD. This is the classic “ boy who cried wolf” scenario. And this is the big challenge we face. Particularly as it is very hard to control the spread of FUD once it has been chucked. Vendors may launch marketing pitches with some FUD statistics and soundbites, but in this age of social media those soundbites can develop a life of their own and get picked up by the ExpHurts in your organization who will amplify them. This is a kind of a FUDchucker Proxy that we need to watch for.

So, What Can We Do?

FUD can be a tool. But if it is the only tool you have, you are doomed in my experience. Because FUD equates to drudgery, hard work, and worst case scenarios. It takes a bit of effort, but a well-rounded change message or pitch should address the following:

  • The Fear (and why everyone’s monkey brains should care)
  • The First Fix (the simple first steps that can be taken quickly)
  • The Greed (what are the extra benefits that can be achieved from doing this?)
  • The Prestige (how will this add to our status?)

Fear is the easy part. First Fix helps to calm the monkey brain and prevent people from playing dead in the face of an insurmountable problem.

The Greed is essential to help keep people focused on the issue: what is the value add? What other problem is going to be solved? How much money will you make or save through knock on benefits? This requires some analysis and thinking outside of the core issues.

The Prestige: What is the element of all of this that will feed the egos of the senior stakeholders? More than just saving money, what can they boast about at industry forums or networking events?

If you don’t think in three dimensions about these issues with perspective and depth, your FUD will fall flat on its face.

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Daragh O Brien

Daragh O Brien

Daragh O Brien is a data management consultant and educator based in Ireland. He’s the founder and managing director of Castlebridge. He also lectures on data protection and data governance at UCD Sutherland School of Law, the Smurfit Graduate School of Business, and at the Law Society of Ireland. He is a Fellow of the Irish Computer Society, a Fellow of Information Privacy with the IAPP, and has previously served on the boards of two international professional bodies. He also is a volunteer contributor to the Leaders’ Data Group (www.dataleaders.org) and a member of the Strategic Advisory Council to the School of Business in NUI Maynooth. He is the co-author of Ethical Data & Information Management: Concepts, Tools, and Methods, published in 2018 by Kogan Page, as well as contributing to works such as the DAMA DMBOK and other books on various data management topics.

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